Calle Leona - Tales from the Barrio Gótico
Although calle is probably best translated as street, the Calle de la Leona (street of the lioness) is not particularly well summarized by that word. To an english-speaking person coming from a "developed" country, the word street implies certain things: cars certainly, traffic lanes, gutter or curb, traffic signs or signals, a sidewalk perhaps, some grass or trees, pedestrians, something that divides the traffic from the front doors of the houses or apartments or buildings on it.
Other than pedestrians, for want of a far less-organized word, Calle Leona has none of these. When I open the door to our building, the street is at my feet, cobblestoned and usually filthy. If I was foolish enough to take two steps straight forwards, I'd bang my head into the building on the "other side" of the "street". One does not "cross" the street in this neighborhood. On stepping into the street, you do not look for traffic. No car has driven the length of Calle Leona for a long time, of that I am fairly certain.
We live on an intersection, a meeting of four streets that are similar. When the occasional car strays foolishly down Calle de Raurich as far as Leona, it can take up to fifteen minutes to negotiate the kink in the street at the intersection to continue straight on down the imperceptible slope to the sea. No one turns left onto Leona nor right onto Calle de Tres Llits (three beds). On the rare occasion that two cars approach each other from either direction on Raurich or Calle de Escudellers Blancs (white shields), one is forced to reverse.
Calle Leona is about 100 meters in length. One sometimes hears Barcelona referred to as a city that never sleeps. Though it has never been clear to me what this might mean, living here makes any need for definition seem secondary. There are so many ways for a street to be awake! At best, Leona is "quieter" for about one hour a night, from 4am to 5am when the bars re-open as breakfast clubs. At best, Leona dozes fitfully. During the day, viewed from a height, one might imagine the street asleep, at times. But down on the street, walking in the stink of warming evaporating piss and caked shit, one is led to thoughts of escape, not sleep, though finding people sleeping in it is not uncommon.
It is 4:15am now, and in the time it has taken me to write the last two pages, at least three men have pissed against the wall under my balcony, and two others have divided up some white dry drug on the ledge of a bricked-up window. People walk past and no one pays any attention to anyone else. The pissers piss, the dealers deal, and the drunken or semi-drunken youths walk on. Fights erupt, people scream and cry out at all times, bar doors open and the pounding music pounds harder.
No, "street" is not a word that describes Calle Leona well. It is at once much more and much less. It is at once incredibly rich and incredibly poor. It is loud and dirty and annoying. At times, the piss and vomit flow freely through the spaces between the cobblestones, and huge piles of shit, left by phantom dogs or simply the poor who gather outside the convent, are trodden in and walked in smears from one end to the other. Calle Leona is a half-open eye, a cocked ear. Calle Leona never sleeps. These pages will bear witness to that. When I am done writing, I will move.
In the evenings, sitting by the open doors to the balcony, something rustles by, sounding like the plastic ribbons trailing a kite, and there is an explosion in the street. Looking out and down, all is still. Nothing is amiss and no one is visible.
Eventually one night you glimpse a white flash moving down the side of the building opposite. Looking into the street after the explosive crash, you see a plastic bag lying by the building wall, its side split open, and noodles, crushed cardboard containers and other internal organs lie scattered in the street. Looking upwards, you see nothing. The streets are full of rubbish, that's nothing new. But someone saves themselves the walk and simply throws it off their balcony or out their windows.
I am reminded at once of descriptions of the middle ages, with open sewers running down the middle of each street, a place for people to dump their wastes. If the bubonic plague wanders the streets of Barcelona at night, scouting for a campaign headquarters for a new attack, it could do worse than choose this place.
The missiles continue. Friends from the south come to visit and as we eat, a bag whistles by. We bask in the reflected glory of cohabiting this wild street. Still nothing appears above. The whistling of the passing bag and the briefest glimpse of it remind me of mice in the house. They leave fleeting sensory impressions, so fleeting you doubt they occurred, yet somehow you know they did. In this case there can be little doubt as the bag smashes into the cobblestones not a tenth of a second later.
Sometimes, from the bedroom in the middle of our apartment, we hear the crashing noise in the street. Occasionally it is followed by shouting or the noise of balcony doors opening or slamming shut. We wonder at the identity of the mysterious dumper above, and I take care to walk in the middle of the street which in any case is less than a step from either side.
One day we are at home when a bag whistles past. A group of four people who live in an apartment below are on the street and their son is almost hit. They shout up, and though I understand nothing, it is clear that they are not happy. A screeching old woman's voice answers them from the top of the building. There is a long exchange of abuse. Afterwards, Ana translates some of what passed: "Stop throwing things into the street, you're going to kill someone!" "Of course I'm going to kill someone. I should have killed you years ago!!" Nothing is changed. The nightly bombardment continues.
Though this area is part of the "Barrio Gotico" (gothic neighborhood), it is far older than Gothic. The Romans founded Barcino in about 15 B.C., having displaced or obliterated an earlier farming people, the Laietani, about whom little is known. Five hundred years ago, under the rule of Ferdinand III, Leona was the street that housed the lion feeders of the king. Hence the name. I have been dreaming of lions, as though I've taken on the dreams of the ones who lived here (with apologies to Tom Waits).
Leona has not been left completely behind by the advances of the last centuries. We have electricity for instance, and running water. The voltage is different from the rest of Barcelona, 125V instead of 220V, and we don't drink the water, but the essentials are there.
There's no gas here and because of this, the city government employs a small army of men to wheel butane tanks through the streets by day. Six tanks to a trolley, they come through the street in orange uniforms with their gas, pausing every hundred meters or so to take out some unknown metal object, probably a wrench, and clang it as loudly as possible on the sides of a couple of butane tanks. The experienced "butanos" get a rhythm going and strike up distinctive tattoos. Most of the time though it's just a wild clanging that cannot be escaped unless one is accustomed and asleep.
Sometimes when we walk through the streets, we find a trolley with butane tanks strapped to it. I look in vain for the metal clanger, but it is always gone. I'd like to try it, to see how well I could ring the tanks, and to get the butano back into the street to look for his competitor or to his tanks. When you run out of gas, you yell to a passing butano and for 1100 pesetas, he'll bring you a tank and for 100 extra, disconnect the old and install the new.
Tonight at 1am I sat in the front room reading from a Spanish children's text to Ana, who corrected my pronunciation and translation. The doors onto both balconies were open wide and the sounds of the street filled the room. The three nearest bars were closed, or not yet open, but the Black Lemon, 50 meters down Escudellers Blancs was busy enough. Many people walked by in small groups, talking or occasionally yelling.
When the first sound of breaking glass reached us, I think we both ignored it, assuming someone had dropped or thrown a glass or bottle in the street, not an unusual occurrence. Then there was a second and then third. We got up to look closer and realized that someone in one of the apartments above the bar was dropping bottles down into the street. After the fourth or fifth they stopped and we were unable to tell from which apartment they came. But it was from at least the third floor, as we saw one falling.
No one was hit and some time later a man from the bar came and swept up the glass from the still-wet street (wet from the orange suited cleaning men). I've seen plenty of objects thrown into the street from on high, even tonight, before and after the bottle bombing, but this is the first time I've seen bare bottles.
Twice a day, the poor people collect along Leona outside the rear entrance to the convent. Inside is a large dining room and kitchen where they are fed. The collection of people waiting to eat sometimes numbers as many as fifty. They are of all types and the only things they have in common are their poverty, their hunger, and the characteristic look of those who have spent the last years out of doors. Many carry walking sticks, some sit in doorways, some sleep against a wall, while others talk loudly of some unknown subject.
Yesterday at lunch time, I became aware of a rising noise in the street. Not sudden and not loud, but of many voices growing in number and volume. From the balcony I saw the poor people outside the convent had begun to argue. Two men seemed at the heart of it, but old women and men around them were pushing and yelling, urging them on or trying to restrain them. My best view was of one of the main combatants, who was dressed in a t-shirt bearing the single word "ocean" and carrying a stick with a metal handle. On his head he wore a little sailor's cap and his face had the look of an old sea salt. Soon, a man ran under my balcony and off to Plaza Real from where he returned with a policeman on a motor scooter.
By this time, the old sea salt was trying to crack his adversary over the head with the metal end of his stick which he waved menacingly over his head and swung occasionally. The policeman at once tried to wrestle away the stick but was unable. The old man clung to it furiously and half a dozen others got involved, pushing and pulling in various directions.
Eventually, the policeman gave up and went to confront the other fighter, who was now out of my view. The sea captain came up behind the policeman and once again set himself to waving his stout stick in the air, trying to reach it over the shoulder of the policeman to poke at his opponent. At one point it looked like the policeman would become involved in the fighting, but no. Old women screamed abuse and pushed the men. The men yelled back and at each other and waved their sticks. Eventually, without achieving much, if anything, the policeman simply left.
All along Leona, people lined their tiny balconies and looked down on the fracas. Some shouted encouragement, suggestions, or more abuse. Eventually the whole thing quieted down; probably when they were let in to eat.
It is Saturday morning and the noise of an engine and the grinding of steel has started up beneath my balcony. It is the knife sharpener. The man looks about 75 though is probably only 50. On the back of his motor cycle he has a grinding stone attached to the bike's engine. On a dirty rag he has an impressive array of knives, which he has begun to sharpen. People bring them from their apartments and for 200 pesetas each, he sharpens them with the grinder and then by hand with a sharpening stone.
I take down our biggest knife. It's as long as my forearm, with a blade up to 5cm wide. It still looks tiny beside most of the knives on the rag where he lays it. I have some thoughts that he might ruin the knife's appearance, but decide that he must know what he's doing. After finishing a huge meat cleaver, he sets himself to sharpen mine. Ten minutes later I have the sharpest knife I've ever felt. Ana uses it to slice a single sheet of paper sideways and is satisfied. After my knife, the sharpener takes apart a pair of scissors and sharpens them. He puts the pin back between the blades and bangs it flat with a hammer.
I love this place. The people here have such a sense of time and permanence. Things are made to last and when they grow old, they are repaired rather than discarded and replaced. Instead of buying a new knife, or one of those stay-sharp models that is never really sharp, an old man comes through the neighborhood and the people bring out their knives. The people talk and laugh, there is a sense of rightness and of value.
Knife sharpeners have probably stopped at this corner for hundreds of years. You have a sense of being a part of a process, of preserving something though at the same time of simply being involved in an everyday transaction. Do these people feel the history of it all, or are they simply having their knives sharpened? Somehow I wish it is both, but I do not care since there is nothing I would change here. When the knife sharpener comes by, I will take him a knife and pay him whatever he asks.
It is 3:20am and I am sitting in the front room. As always, the balcony doors are wide open and I have an eye and an ear on the street. A motor scooter drives up Raurich and I hear the familiar squawk of a police radio. From the balcony I see a policeman dismount and make an entry in his notebook which he then returns to a compartment on the scooter. Minutes later he is joined by a second policeman, also on a scooter.
They are perhaps 30 meters away and I watch them looking at doors and trying the handles of some. They push the intercom button for an apartment and ten seconds later a mechanical voice breaks the relative silence of the street. It is a woman and she begins a conversation with the two policemen that is probably loud enough to wake several neighbors.
After this, the police try another door and a man comes down in a robe and slippers. He begins a conversation, telling them of noise and music in some higher apartment. Up above, on the third floor, two women have come out on their balconies and they begin a loud conversation across the space which separates their buildings --- less than 2 meters. Both conversations increase in volume until the noise is incredibly loud given that there are only five people involved. After a couple of minutes the policemen call up to the women and tell them to be quiet as people are sleeping. The women take little notice, but the noise level drops marginally. After a few more minutes, the man returns to his apartment and the police leave.
Now it is 3:45am and odd people are still wandering through the streets, talking and making random noises. Through an open door or window up above me I hear the loud snores of someone who has managed to fall asleep. From farther off comes the snoring, a sawing, deeper and slower sound, of another.
Calle Leona is at its quietest for several minutes. Then the night is filled with a loud crackling voice from an intercom "¡Hola Hola!", followed by a blowing sound, as if some resident were about to deliver a speech and is blowing on the auditorium's microphone to test that it is working. The convent bells chime 4. Two sets of bells reply. A woman calls "¿Pedro? ¿Pedro?" but receives no answer.
It is more or less quiet for about ten minutes. Then a great shouting, singing, and random noise approaches from down Escudellers Blancs. It gets louder and louder and finally two sets of 3 bare-chested youths come into sight. From my balcony, I see a movement in a window on the second floor just ahead of them and I know what fate awaits them. Sure enough, as they come underneath an arm appears and flings a bucketful of water. It spreads to the width of the street by the time it reaches the ground, drenching the first set of youths.
Almost immediately, it is followed by a second wave. The old woman must have several containers up there, lined up inside her balcony door. "¡Ducha!" (shower) yell the youths, and call her the daughter of a whore, shouting even louder than before. The second set of 3 are also the target of two water loads, though they escape relatively dry. It is 4:15am.
Today I saw as strange a scene as any and although I have no good idea of why it transpired or of its resolution, the simple spectacle is worth recording.
Often it seems that my inability to understand the great majority of speech around me adds to the mystery and charm of the events I am surrounded by. I am something like a dumb or child witness. I have seen the events, I recall them clearly, yet I do not know why they happened or what they meant, and I cannot describe them to anyone I meet. Perhaps one day, when I speak and understand much more Spanish and Catalan, some essential layers of the mystery will be stripped away and I will be less interested. Or, perhaps, the richness will increase. In any case, I will surely make some transition like the one from child to adult as I learn to make sense of what I see and to play an active role in that which surrounds me.
For now, I have no choice but to observe. I am glad to be recording these impressions because I know that if I stay here and continue to learn, this state cannot be maintained. Which leads to asking why bother to learn more? Why not preserve the innocent wondering stage? But these questions are merely rhetorical and I mention them simply because this writing bumped into them, not because they are questions that need an answer.
When living in Germany I felt no need for others, and little curiousity, and I preserved distance through incomprehension by learning little of the language. But so many things have changed and are different. That was then and this is now. That was Germany, this is Spain (a world of difference), I was dead and now I am alive (in some sense), I am not as I was. Questions such as these are no longer questions. My curiosity and wonder at all that surrounds me here, the Spanish language, the people, and my desire to lose myself in them --- all these combine to draw me forward, or draw me on, to bring me out of the innocent observer state. With these writings I leave a trail of crumbs that can always lead me back to where I have been, what I have thought, and how I have felt.
All of which is lengthy prelude to saying that I saw something odd as I walked home from the main post office at 9pm today. Calle Ample is a long, narrow, one-way street that runs parallel to the shore along the bottom of the Barrio Gótico on our side of Vía Laietana, all the way to the Ramblas. It is one of my favorite streets, lined with interesting old building, passing on the side of one of my favorite plazas, Plaza de Merce, and with sidewalks, shops, bars, restaurants and, of course, more.
Today I walked along in the twilight, not paying too much attention to anything. Perhaps 100 meters from the post office I stepped onto the sidewalk to avoid two cars that were reversing slowly towards me. While this is nothing terribly strange, it caused me to look up and pay more attention. I saw a small crowd in front of the cars --- some on the road, most on the left-hand sidewalk. Looking further, also interesting, a similarly positioned crowd of people 30 meters beyond the first crowd. But most interesting of all, what lay between them.
It resembled the rubble-strewn streets you see on TV between police and rioters, but with more variation. Primarily there was broken furniture and wood, but also glass, rubbish, pieces of metal, and other odds and ends. I paid less attention than I might have because I looked, along with everyone else, up to the fourth floor where a tattered curtain blew outwards from open balcony doors. The source of the debris was beyond question, but I had many others, all of which remain unanswered.
Was there a fight in that apartment? How did it sound when the furniture hit the street? Was there any warning, or did random heavy objects simply begin to rain from above? Was anyone hit? Was the thrower (or throwing team) trying to hit people? Had the curtains been torn as they tried to force some large piece through the balcony doors?
I've never been particularly interested in other people's affairs, but this sort of thing is so far outside my experience that I react with a completely naive astonishment and want immediately to know everything.
The debris was scattered over the width of the street. Most likely, some of it had even hit the building opposite and fallen straight down the wall facing the windows from which it had been discharged. It was clear that when I passed through this no-man's land between the crowds that there was no place completely safe. As I wondered whether the thrower(s) were trying to hit people deliberately, a semi-drunken man detached himself from the crowd opposite and began to walk, without looking up, towards us. There was no reaction from above, and as it seemed unlikely that he was part of an organized plot to engender a false sense of security, I crossed the no-man's land as well. Looking up.
Again, there was no reply from above and I walked on and turned up Avinyo towards home, thinking that I'd missed the best of the show. Surely I will never know anything more about what happened on Calle Ample today. I don't really care one way or another, but I have to write it down. The events in the streets are so commonplace and so extraordinary that I feel at home living here and yet, simultaneously, like an alien intelligence filing reports on what I have seen and heard. As though these pages were filling with a transcript that I will somehow transmit or funnel to the outside world, to a world where such things do not happen.
There is something about Barcelona that is so primitive and alive. Not dangerous --- one never experiences any sense of danger here, just simple and raw. Yet this is the city of the olympics, 3 million people, cosmopolitan and modern. But here, in the Barrio Gótico, something remains of centuries gone by. Does Barcelona, like some giant with one foot in the present, and the other mired in the Barrio Gótico, struggle to free itself, to become thoroughly modern? I hope not, and with my surroundings it is hard to imagine how that could happen. In any case, I have the daily feeling that I am here while Barcelona is at least partly as it was. Surely this richness will endure and it will not become the lot of later inhabitants to reflect too sadly on what was and what has become. Of course that is inevitable to some extent, but to me there is something important about this neighborhood, about this way of living. It is important to me to be here, to preserve it, to recognize it, and to describe it. Again it is 4am.
Last night I finally succumbed. Five friends of Ana's came to dinner and I cleaned up when they had gone. Under the kitchen sink, like most people with kitchens sinks, we keep the trash. We use plastic bags, and when they are full we tie their handles together. Normally trash collects in bags like this, and in many other forms, in piles on the street. These are taken away nightly by the men in orange suits.
A large pile of trash had accumulated in the street diagonally across from our corner. From one balcony I could not see if anyone was coming from the other direction, and vice-versa. As there was no noise, I held the bag of trash like a basketball and shot it across the street, arcing slightly upwards. It fell, with a predictable but satisfying rubbishy noise, into the midst of the rest of the trash. I immediately understood why other people do not bother to take their trash to the street the long way.
I think I could get used to simply throwing it out the balcony doors, and I now look speculatively at my beer bottle or plate when I finish with them, or, more convenient, when I feel that I have eaten enough. If I threw half a plate of food and an empty bottle over my shoulder and down into the street, I am sure no one would take it amiss. They may consider me a little eccentric, but that might be all --- supposing anyone considered it at all. I'm beginning to feel as though I could easily walk past a smashed plate and bottle and half-eaten meal on the street and not pay it much attention.
No matter what, the men in orange suits with the water hoses wash it all away each night. No matter what, Calle Leona will never be clean, the filth and the street are one and cannot, will not, be separated.
It is summer, and I am walking down my street, towards my apartment. Two women come towards me. They have handkerchiefs in their hands, pressed over their noses and mouths. They hold their children by the hand and close to their sides. They do not look right or left, and they walk purposefully. I wonder how long it has been since they last inhaled.
Clearly they are afraid to breathe the air here, and perhaps with good reason. It is quite still, and the only breeze brings the rising sweet stench that wafts up from the sewers under the middle of the street, from the warming urine so liberally applied to the nooks and crannies, and from the smeared dogshit that stretches half the length of the street showing you just where not to step.
I saunter along and greet the barman of #13, "El Trece", and somehow I cannot help but inhale deliberately as though the smell was of my own making, as though to become one with this street, to take its odor into my apartment in my clothes and my hair, its filth on the bottom of my shoes. It both disgusts and attracts. It is Calle Leona, and most people are simply passing through, some with handkerchiefs on their mouths and fear in their eyes. To others, it is home, and everything in it and in these pages is a part of that life, of that decaying richness. The shit and piss in your nostrils is life and death, and it is here that I walk in the midst of both. Of all places, only here do I feel I can live.
It has always been more or less clear where the bags of rubbish that are thrown into the street from on high originate. If there was ever any doubt before tonight, it has now been put to rest.
At 10pm we were eating dinner in the front room --- spaghetti with a sauce full of delicious fried tomatoes and onions. The sound of the rustling plastic bag flashing downwards past the window, the glimpse you get out of the corner of one eye, and the sound of the tremendous crash into the street, follow each other in such rapid succession that the noise of the crash is over before you realize you would have known it was about to happen --- had you had the time to process the first signals.
I jump out and look up, but see nothing. It's clear that, whatever it was, it was thrown from the top of the building nearest to our balcony, on the other side of Leona. The corner of the building is perhaps 1.5 meters from the corner of our balcony. We are perhaps 4 meters above street level and the other building is perhaps 15 meters high. I have seen the people who throw things into the street. When I hang the washing on the roof of our building I can look down slightly onto their rooftop terrace. They sit outside on summer nights and watch television. One is an old woman who is often cackling wildly in the street, shuffling around in slippers with a dog called Terry. The other is her husband, who looks like he has spent a lifetime in the sun, and who greeted me across the gap between our buildings. He didn't seem like a madman but the word on the street is that he is exactly that.
I look down into the street from the balcony. There is a split plastic bag, and beside it a yellow hard-back book. Judging from the sound of the impact, they were thrown together and the book landed flat. If you've ever jumped off a 10 meter diving platform, you'll know there's plenty of time to pick up speed over this distance. The landing point is probably two meters horizontally from the right-hand corner of our Leona balcony. Even without the narrow streets and tall buildings, the noise would be loud. With them, it is far more dramatic and emphatic.
No more action seems forthcoming and I return to my meal. Several minutes later, a young guy is getting onto his Vesper, which has been parked against the wall next to where the book landed. He has just put on his helmet, a sensible option around here, and swung his right leg over the seat when Whumpf! A plastic bag full of trash explodes in the street less than a meter behind him. He looks up for an explanation, but there is simply the wall of the building, topped by the night sky. Revenge certainly lies in that direction, but answers do not. He looks up to our balcony and sees me eating. I point up and out to show him the source of the missile. He looks back and up, and appears doubtful, as though he's more willing to believe that I have somehow lobbed a full bag of trash at him, while eating spaghetti with my other hand.
A man with no shirt lifts the shutters on the window opposite and looks out at me from between the bars. He tells the cyclist that it's a crazy woman up top and tells me that she is a pig. Then he goes back inside, the cyclist rides off, and I return to eating.
Minutes later, two guys are walking up Escudellers Blancs, through the drop zone, towards the intersection with Leona. Yet another full bag of trash crashes into the street, missing them by less than a meter. They too look for the culprit, but, as usual, there is nothing at all to be seen above. I seriously doubt that the thrower is looking at all. When I saw the book in the street, I immediately formed an image of a man on the terrace finishing a novel and simply tossing it over his shoulder, over the edge, instead of returning it to a shelf. If I had a video camera, I would try to capture some of this action. One night I think I will go up onto our roof to have a look at what goes on over there.
The two guys also see me and I point up to the opposite roof. The man in the window opposite ours confirms this. They ask where the door leading up to the apartment is, and he tells them. They knock but of course there is no answer. When the man tells them that the people up there are crazy, the two guys, a little disappointed, decide to leave.
Minutes later, several books, one after another, crash into the street. Whoever it is, they're a fast reader, or they don't like many books. The old lady who lives up there is suddenly heard in the street, coming from Plaza Real. So it's not her --- this time --- but her husband. She sees the books and begins to pick them up. From above we hear a voice muttering away. She heads inside.
Before she could possibly have climbed the stairs, there is another crash in the street! This time, a big red bucket has been thrown. No one was around. Soon afterwards we hear an argument start on the terrace and a large piece of orange plastic falls slowly into the street. The shouting goes on for 15 minutes and Ana tells me that they are simply calling each other names. In the street below, pedestrians pass in relative safety.
The narrow gap between our building and that of the garbage tossers, and their much greater height, means that with only a little outward momentum, a falling object can hit our building, or the one opposite, before it hits the ground. Three days ago we got a good example of this.
We were sitting in the front room when an empty 2-litre Fanta bottle came from above, bounced on the railing of or balcony, and into our room. Who knows if they look before they throw --- it's hard to believe that they do. I grabbed the bottle and threw it back up towards the terrace but it only got halfway, hit their building, and fell back into the street. I felt like retrieving it, taking it to our roof, and throwing it across the gap down onto them. But I did not. Ana tells me we shouldn't start that sort of thing, but it hardly seems like we'd be starting it. The day a bag of their trash lands in our front room or nearly hits me on the street will be the day I toss a big bucket of water across the gap onto their television.
It's funny, but I can already feel myself becoming much more active in all the goings on on our street. Two weeks ago I threw an empty 8 liter water jug down at three people preparing to sniff cocaine off an electricity box under our balcony. I don't think they even noticed --- at least I heard no reaction at all. Later, at 5am, I went to the roof and poured our biggest cooking pot full of water down onto another set of coke sniffers. I missed them --- the water took forever to get there, but it did spread out to cover the entire intersection --- but next time I wont.
The number of people shouting, fighting, pissing, taking drugs, breaking bottles, and so on right under my balcony is so high, and they are so invasive, in some way, that it is difficult not to become a part of it. If people want to drink and fight and get stoned, that's entirely their business as far as I'm concerned. But when they do it incredibly loudly, at 5am in the morning underneath my window, they can expect to get a little wet.
Today I sat eating lunch, listening to music, and reading in my front room. For 15 minutes or so, I ignored a persistent hammering noise coming from the street below. It was clear that someone was destroying something, but that sort of thing is so commonplace that it took 15 minutes before I realized I was ignoring it.
When I went to the balcony door and looked down through the window, I immediately wished I had looked earlier, and also that I had a video camera (not for the last time today either!).
Sitting in the street right underneath me was an old man with his back to the wall and leg splayed out. His body faced towards me and I therefore had a perfect view of his odd industry.
His hands were bound with rags and in one he held an ancient hammer with which he was pounding a piece of dark wood that he had on the ground between his legs. All around him were strewn flat pieces of the same wood, perhaps one-quarter of a centimeter thick. The object he was engaged in breaking down was a wooden box of this material. Beside him was an old metal trolley, the kind favored by air travelers with a pull-up handle, small wheels, and a strap around the luggage, like a lightweight highly portable dolly. But this one was different. Apart from the obvious fact that it had been salvaged from somewhere, its cargo was a battered old cardboard box that appeared to contain rags, tarpaulin, and other objects whose shape and purpose could not be determined.
On the right hand side of the man were two dark-colored copper coils. After a dozen or so blows with the hammer, the box between his legs began to deliver its contents, another coppery coil. Using practiced blows, the man quickly stripped off all the attached wood and taping. The end result of all this activity was a large flat pile of wooden pieces and three copper coils, which the man put into a large plastic bag which he took from his cardboard box. He threw the hammer and another tool into the box and they landed with a clang, meeting other unknown tools of his unknown trade.
He stood, and, with consideration largely unknown in these parts, slid the pile of wooden pieces against the wall where he had been sitting, using several shuffling motions of his feet. He took the handle of his trolley, put the plastic bag with the copper coils into the attached cardboard box, and walked off.
I do not know where the old man came from, or where he went. I still have no idea what the original object was that he so meticulously reduced to pieces. I don't know what the copper coils were for or what he intended to do with them (I can only imagine that he intended to sell them as scrap metal). For some reason, the passage and activity of this obscure man reminds me of cycles of death, scavenging, decay, and re-use in the (non-human) animal world. Something dies and a procession of animals, each with their own purpose, visit the corpse, taking what they need and moving on. Gradually the whole is reduced to bones and these in turn are broken down, picked and licked.
Much later, at 3am, I am again looking out my window. Two people are practically making love in the street below me. They are oblivious to passers by, who occasionally stand and watch the show. Only 2 meters away, another couple is picking through the flat wooden pieces that were left by the old man. I look at them and see that many of the pieces are in the shape of the letter E. I wonder if it could have been some kind of sign, but there are only E's and various other pieces that may be E fragments. Someone has added a toilet seat to the collection but no one seems interested in retrieving it. After 5 minutes, the current scavenging couple have collected a pile of E's about 5 centimeters thick and they depart, leaving the remaining wooden pieces spread about the street.
The young couple are still in the throes of passion. The guy, whose face I cannot see, is sitting on the ground, leaning on a roller-door which is set back perhaps 30 centimeters from the building fronts and walls of the street. His legs are straight out in front of him and his feet are turned outwards. He's wearing jeans and a white t-shirt.
Sitting in his lap is a thin woman in a purple t-shirt and black pants. If neither of them had pants on, they could be making love quite easily. As it is, she is rocking up and down on him, his hands are on her breasts and she has hers down the front of his pants and is moving them up and down as she grinds her pelvis into his. They are kissing constantly and furiously. From time to time he makes to lift her shirt and kiss her breasts but she stops him.
They are oblivious to the people in the street who walk by. The woman's forearm can be seen working up and down between the man's legs, partly covered by t-shirts and bodies, but there is no mistaking what is happening. People walk by in ones, twos, and threes, sometimes treading carefully, sometimes looking openly, and sometimes stopping altogether and commenting on the lovers. In the first five minutes I watch, the couple collecting E's go about their work 2 meters away, just as unheeding of the lovers as they are of the E collectors.
I watch for half an hour, during which perhaps 30 people walk by. I wonder what combination of drugs, alcohol, and young lust could bring about such an uninhibited display. The street is filthy, as usual, and they are spread across half of it.
After a while, the action comes to a close and the woman climbs off the man and sits beside him. Freed of her weight, he slumps down and lies on his back in the street, taking up almost the whole width. She leans away from him against a wall with her head down and doesn't move for some minutes. I wonder if she is crying and when she does turn back, she is wiping her nose and eyes and I guess that I was right. Later though, I see two large, dark, and glistening puddles of vomit beside her, slowly making their way under her bent legs towards the sleeping man.
Finally she tries to rouse the man, who has pulled both his arms into his t-shirt and rolled onto his side. Lying in the street in a t-shirt in November at 4am is definitely not a good way to conserve body heat. Before she can get him to his feet, he gets her down lying full length on top of him. Again her hips are working and his hands, suddenly alive, disappear down the back of her pants.
She doesn't seem to be winning the battle to get the man out of there, but she doesn't appear to mind this temporary relapse either. Before long though, she gets to her feet, takes the man's outstretched hands and, with a pull, he lurches to his feet and they are off.
It's the second time I have seen a couple in the street below me and thought they might pull their pants down and make love (if that is what it could be called) in the street. If it does happen one day, I already know that I wont be surprised.
Writing these notes by night always develops into a never-ending session, or at least a session that takes several times as long to complete as it would were I not sitting here with a perfect view of further happenings. In the time that it takes to describe one remarkable happening, another has surely been played out on the stage below me and I try to set it down too while the impression it creates is still fresh.
Last night I sat here until 5am reading. Three English youths chased and beat a Moor in Calle Leona. They were accusing him of being in cahoots with another Moor who had taken their money and then run in a drug deal that didn't work. They demanded the watch and coat of the Moor they had caught. When he too ran, all four of them sprinted down Leona yelling. They caught him just out of sight from my balcony. I could hear them beating him, and he screamed and wailed for the police, who did not appear. I doubt that he would have welcomed the police in fact, except as something that put an end to the blows. They kept at it for several minutes. In the end, the English guys jogged back down Leona, paused under my balcony, where one showed the bloodied back of his hand to another, and then disappeared down Escudellers Blancs.
Sometimes I wish I had a video camera because the density of the action or detail in the street below exceeds my capacity to transcribe or remember. Like an artist who works from a model, I could then play and halt the tape in order to capture the details that make these experiences so rich. Without some aid of this kind, I can only record broad impressions and gross actions. Perhaps I need to be a more careful observer, but one would have to be very good to see and recall the immense and important amount of trivial detail that combines to make just a minute or two of activity something that, once again, moves you to think "this place is incredible, I have to write this down, I have to leave some record of these happenings". The backdrop, the stage on which these events are played out is an important piece, and that I could study at leisure and write up more. Perhaps I will, but it is 5am again and I will sleep now.
Three months have passed, and with them the bulk of the winter. I have written nothing here, but seen much.
Today it is the 11th, which is the night that people take their unwanted furniture into the streets. By midnight, the whole area resembles a widely distributed junk shop. The streets are lined with panels and broken doors, the shells of old television sets, exhausted spring mattresses, high-backed once-grand chairs, more chairs of every description, always at least partially broken or showing the signs of hard use. With these more recognizable objects one finds a vast array of partial objects --- pieces of wood or twisted metal, plastics, broken glass and mirror frames, old tiles, a broken ladder, broken drawers and shelves. It is as though a foreign nation launched an attack with missiles exploding above the city whose fallout was not radioactive debris but broken furniture.
A curious exchange goes on that reminds me of card games in which each player passes their three worst cards to the person on the left. You get rid of your trash but you take in something from someone else. For every pile of furniture in the street, there is someone (or ones) picking through it looking for something of use. There are many useful things too, we have several chairs that were brought from the street and a desktop of fine heavy wood at the office which cost me some effort to carry home.
There are also the professional collectors who squeeze trucks through the narrow streets piling them high with everything that could be brought back to life and sold.
Finally, the cleaners come and take the remainder away. Sometimes, they do not cover the whole neighborhood and the streets are left awash in broken furniture for a day or two --- during which even more of it gets broken down and the piles migrate and spread.
Again I am struck by the similarities with some natural systems. The old and broken is discarded and is then subject to wave after wave of passers who strip off and break down whatever remains. At times it seems like some law of conservation of junk is being played out (or obeyed) by the multitude of players in this monthly exchange.
One of the most curious inhabitants of this area is a small thin woman who seems to spend most of her time on Plaza Sant Jaume during the night. I have seen her many, many, times standing in front of the Generalitat or Ajutamiento talking to the guards. She is invariably dressed in a dark green and black checked skirt with black stockings covering her thin legs. She carries several plastic bags which at some point I suspected contained other plastic bags, but they do not and their contents remains a mystery. If you cross Plaza Sant Jaume late at night or in the early morning, the probability that you will see her is high. Sometimes she stands in a corner of the plaza, sometimes (I think) I have seen her with a radio, but mainly she is talking to the guards.
One day, as I entered Calle Leona from Baixada de Sant Miguel, which runs down from beside the government buildings on Plaza Sant Jaume, I saw the bag lady (as I call her) just a little in front of me. I slowed down to remain behind her, to see what she did and where she went. About halfway along, she took out some keys and stopped in front of a door. With a little surprise and considerable pride, I realized that the mysterious bag lady was my close neighbor. Calle Leona, street of riches. Somehow it made sense that she should live here too, that she was a part of this street.
Since that day, I have taken more interest in her. She gives no indication of being at all disturbed or uncertain of her purpose in life. She has a steady, confident, and assured gaze and is often looking off into the distance, never at you.
What does she have in those plastic bags I wonder? When does she sleep and why can she be found at 4am on Plaza Sant Jaume? What does she talk to the guards about? These are all questions I probably will never have answers to.
A couple of days ago I turned left from our door onto Calle Leona and saw her some ten meters away. As I passed her I said hello, but she didn't answer or look at me. When I had gone past her, another ten meters, I decided to turn around and go the other way to our office so I would see Ana in case she was returning. The bag lady was standing in the street writing in a crumpled ring-bound notebook whose pages seemed already full of closely-written notes. What was she writing about, and why? It was a small and dirty note pad whose pages had wavy much-thumbed edges. She gave me a furtive look as I passed her, and said nothing. My curiosity increases of course, though I have no real hope for any resolution and am quite happy with our current relative positions.