Within the expatriate scene there were all kinds of people and cross currents. It was a moveable feast, in Hemingway’s words, a congregation, always changing but balanced and constant in its character because it had a center, La Plaza de Santa Ana, and because everyone was transient to one degree or another.
The memory of the Spanish Civil War was still painful and World War II was not far in the past. I had a German friend, Hans, who was my age. He lived around the plaza too. His father had sent him to Spain to learn the language for business reasons. We traveled together to Segovia outside of Madrid on my motorcycle to see the Roman aqueduct. We visited Avila, the home of Saint Teresa, one of the “doctors of the church,” one of the greatest saints.
Hans told me how to say not guilty, “un shuldige” in German, and orders are orders, “befehlt est befehlt”. We laughed like hell nervously about that, acknowledging the horrors of the holocaust and trying to get past it, which is not possible. He was there in Madrid with an older German friend who was studying at the University. That guy would not even meet me to shake my hand because I was an American. These young men had grown up in a Germany flattened by American bombing. They were the sons of Nazis.
I had another friend, Reynold Eston, who was Jewish from the Bronx and had some mysterious purpose in Madrid. He had graduated from college in the states and hung out with the FBI guy who claimed to be a writer but was actually some kind of a spy. They would occasionally “get lucky” with some middle-aged schoolteachers from the states eager to bone up on their Spanish skills.
Reynold was a good guy with red hair like me. We saw each other back in New York for a while but my goyisha, non-Jewish, identity made the friendship impossible there. He lived in a big apartment building with his grandparents and they wouldn’t even let me in the house. I tried to fix him up with my sister and he introduced me to a real smart and interesting Jewish girl at a concert in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. We hit it off well. I asked her out but when I showed up at her apartment she came to the door and said her father wouldn’t let her go out with me. The Germans didn’t like me because I was American and the Jews had a problem because I wasn’t Jewish. Oy vey!
During the time I was there Manuel El Cordobez was a rising star, more like a comet. He came from the poorest of the poor and learned to fight bulls as a youngster by jumping the fences at night on ranches where the bulls were raised, taking his chances with an old coat for a cape. His courage was so astounding that he began to attract attention and with every opportunity he proved again that he had great skill and also the biggest pair of balls in all of Spain.
He was just a year or two older than I and people said we looked alike. It was true to a certain degree. His first fight in Madrid was scheduled while I was there and it was a very big deal. Some of the controllers of the bullfight had tried to keep him from fighting in this greatest of all venues, (Madrid in May, La Feria de San Isidro), because his style wasn’t classic but mostly because he came from a poor background. In those days less than a hundred families controlled all the wealth in Spain and they didn’t like this kind of upstart kid giving the peasants ideas. But he was too good and too exciting and everybody felt it.
It was impossible to get tickets for the arena but it was on TV. Every bar and café was packed with fans when he strode out into the ring, faced the bull, and made a series of breathtaking passes before getting gored in the groin and rushed to the hospital.
Many bullfighters have been killed in the ring. In the museum in Ronda, you can see stuffed heads of the famous bulls that killed them. The bulls all have names and there’s a plaque to tell how those bulls fought and won before dying themselves, the meat given to the poor.
El Cordobez recovered to fight many more times and gain riches and fame. I had heard he played the guitar. One day I went to get my motorcycle, which was getting some mechanical attention, and there he was, coming out of a house on the alley with his guitar. His guitar teacher lived there. I went up to him and asked for his autograph and he signed my passport “Con todo afecto, Manuel El Cordobez”. I still have it.
Her life wasn’t easy but, other than being tired occasionally, she never complained. And even though I am describing times we had together they didn’t come easily or often. It took a lot of work at the café for me to get her to commit to a meeting and sometimes a week or more would go by and it didn’t happen.
There was another young Spanish guy who, it seemed, was doing the same thing I was, showing up at the café mostly to talk to her. Naturally this made me more focused. If you had ever raced homing pigeons, like I have, you would know that one of the most reliable techniques for getting a cock bird home fast is to introduce another cock into the scene right before the race.
Sometimes Emilia wouldn’t show up at one of our meetings. No doubt she had to play some games at home to manage the time to be with me. But, even if she couldn’t show up, Pedro would be there and we had good times on our own. We went to a big swimming pool at the Casa del Campo, a rural park in Madrid. It’s a green place on the outskirts of Madrid, a bit of the country in the city. Emilia and I would go there too on the motorcycle sometimes and sit under the trees by the lake. It was very much like the Seurat painting Dimanche Matin a la Grande Jatte, city people relaxing and enjoying the coolness under the trees and looking out on a sunlit lake.
Pedro’s mother worked for a rich man as his housekeeper and we would visit her, going by the back door to the kitchen to get something to eat. Of course, Pedro loved the motorcycle and, even though I wouldn’t let him or anyone drive it, he wanted to go as fast as possible. Once we went one hundred miles an hour down a very mediocre piece of road. It was scary but a big thrill and the two of us were hollering and laughing with all the energy and ebullience of youth.
One of the big saint’s days came around. There was a fair at night and the three of us went. A carnival had been set up with all the games and rides and even a test of strength where you swing a big wooden mallet and drive a projectile up a shaft to ring the bell at the top. I won fame, honor, and glory with that! Emilia and I held hands for a little while. It was a magical night full of the color of the carnival and a happy crowd; people enjoying the simple pleasures of their culture.
Sebastiano naturally made fun of my young love which was on the opposite end of the romantic spectrum from where he was busily sticking “the brute” into every good-looking woman who passed through our scene. He wanted me to take that hillbilly girl, Marlene, out into the bushes for the real thing. And she was willing and even suggested it but I was not ready for that. It was hard for me to figure how Don, the guy she was living with, would feel about it. So, life rolled on and it was full of good people and experiences for us expats living in Franco’s Spain. Madrid’s attention was on the bullfight and it interested me, perhaps because of Hemingway but also because of my lifelong attraction to hunting and fishing. There is a lot of danger and beauty in it. When you get to know the bullfight, the bull himself becomes equally as heroic as the matador, maybe more so. It’s very complicated. In Ronda, in Andalucía, where some of the best bulls are raised, there is a sign by the entrance of El Corrida which says, in effect, “The bullfight is not something up for discussion.” It’s as much a part of Spanish identity as the language.
Finally, word came that my luggage had arrived and I went to collect it at the main rail station. In a huge building I walked through giant rooms full of piles of luggage and my hopes collapsed thinking it could not be possible for my things to be found here. My guitar, a Martin D-28, had been shipped in a soft case – no protection. We walked through the endless long aisles with luggage on both sides and over to a pile that was distinctly mine. It was all there and in good shape. The guitar was unblemished which I now consider a miracle.
My guitar gave me something to work with other than just hanging out. I began to make a few friends of my own and to talk with a little Spanish girl on the other side of the counter in the “El Principe”. She was around my age, just a little younger. Her name was Emilia Cruz. She worked the afternoon/evening shift with Pedro who was also our age. The three of us started talking and enjoying each other.
I would say to her,
“Hola guapa,” which means “Hi good looking,” and she would say,
“Hola guapo!” She had spirit and was very bright but poor and involved in supporting the family. Her father had died in the Civil War and every Sunday she and her mother visited the grave. Felipe, an older waiter at the café, lived in the same apartment complex as Emilia on the outskirts of Madrid. He kept an eye on her and brought her home at night.
Our friend Pedro was a good young guy full of energy and humor. The three of us recognized our common youth and stage of life even though our lives were very different. There were vast cultural differences, which I should have appreciated because of my experiences in Mexico two years earlier.
Emilia was not free to just “go out” with me or “date” me. Even for her to move in that direction required major decisions and risks. I understand that now, but I don’t think I gave it much thought at the time. My interest was in re-enacting “Romeo and Juliet” in real life and adding a happy ending. These are difficult intentions to criticize. Yet someone so cavalier, playing with the human heart and refusing to weigh the consequences, is dangerous, even cruel. I focused on her and little by little the tide began to turn.
She couldn’t see me on her own. We would meet in the El Retiro Park on Sunday morning before she had to go with her mother to her father’s grave. Pedro would be there as a chaperone and friend. We genuinely liked each other. El Retiro is in the heart of Madrid. The Prado and many other great institutions are located on the edge of the El Retiro. It is a big, elegant park with lakes and places to sit and picnic. There are cafés and boats to hire on the lakes.
In the early mornings of that May in 1964, with a chill still in the air but with the promise of a hot day to come, I would fire up my Triumph and cruise over to the lake where we would meet and hire a boat and row around together. Even though I was not perfect in the language, it didn’t seem to matter. Most of what is important is said in other ways, body language, eyes and tone of voice, a million signs that are older than language and more trusted.
Both Emilia and Pedro were giving me some exposure to their lives and watching how I reacted. One time I met Emilia by herself and she had a baby with her, her cousin’s child. She got on the back of the motorcycle with the baby and we drove across town through heavy traffic to her cousin’s apartment. Before we got there, she got off so that no one would see. It seemed to me she wanted to get a sense of how I was with the baby. At one point she had me hold him. And by getting on that motorcycle with the child she showed her confidence in me and her own courage. She was like a bird, thin and quick. I doubt if she weighed a hundred pounds. She had a beautiful smile and an easy, wonderful-sounding laugh we heard often.
The women, the men, the young and the old watched every fight during the big Feria de San Isidro in May. In the café they would say, “Ah look at the magnificence of the Spanish man. Every other man looks like nothing compared to him.” And Sebastiano would say, “That’s bullshit. These guys are just a bunch of sadistic pig fuckers with no balls of their own so they have to pick on a dumb animal.” Now if those aren’t fighting word. But we never got into a fight and I say “we” because where I come from if you get in a fight and I am with you I’m in the fight too. So, I was often on edge when he would go off like that. And it was often. He would bait people mercilessly. He wanted them to respond so he could blow off some steam.
Around nine o’clock Ruth would show up from her teaching jobs and we would go have dinner at one of the innumerable places in the center of Madrid, modest places with good food. And that was usually a good time, walking in the evening to a place we had decided to try. Madrid is one of the great walking cities. There are scores of restaurants and small businesses and parks. The smell of good things cooking, of olive oil and garlic and a million spices fills the air and the nights are warm and gentle in May. Nobody wants to go to bed and they delay it as long as possible. It’s fun to be with the crowd, run into friends, try a new tapas bar. Great seafood and shellfish are delivered every day fresh from La Coruna on the Atlantic and the din of the crowd is a positive, life-loving sound.
During the days, Sebastiano liked to ride on the back of the motorcycle and I would drive him over to the movie studio or to an agent to see if there was some commercial work for him. At the same time, I was also trying to get some order to my own life. Tagging along with Sebastiano and witnessing the unfortunate dynamic between him and Ruth was exhausting for me. She was the type of person who would not say shit if she was standing in it. And he took tremendous delight in saying the most God-awful atrocities in front of her. They were so outrageous and beyond the pale that she would first be shell-shocked and then pass beyond that and smile or even give a little laugh. I got tired of not knowing how to react to it all.
Sebastiano and his “Senora” became my close friends. Sebastiano was a tall, dark, handsome, Latin-lover guy to look at. He had black wavy hair, a goatee and a full set of perfect teeth. He was strong and could grip a stop sign and hold himself parallel to the road. He met Ruth in England where she was married to a dull upper-class man. They had children who were almost grown. Ruth was at least ten years older than Sebastiano. She had red hair and milk white skin and all the education and breeding one would expect from an English woman of her station.
They had met in a café while having a coffee. Sebastiano was attracted by her refined beauty, and, no doubt, by the class she represented. He was hard on the women. She fell like a ton of bricks and gave up everything, disgraced herself and her husband and children and followed him first to France and then to Spain. She was a good person but a sad, tired person because her life with Sebastiano wasn’t really happy and she had been disowned and renounced by both her husband and her children. Still, she managed good humor as much as possible and could laugh even though she was worn out from supporting him and from his verbal abuse, which was so extreme at times it was almost comical. He had his devils…
The little parts in the films being made and an occasional TV commercial spot provided him some money but not much. He lived off women. The French would call him a macaro, which is the third type of man. To French women there are only three types of men: con, pede, et macaro, which is: asshole, fag, and pimp.
Sebastiano had an outrageous personality to go with his impressive looks. His charisma was amazing. He would walk into a café and, in a few minutes, draw all the attention to himself. He would insult people and challenge them, all in broken Spanish, but somehow, he did it in a way that didn’t cause people to dislike him. I can’t say they liked him either because fear was mixed into the equation. I often expected to see someone haul off and punch him in the mouth but it never happened. And the women just wanted him plain and simple. He was the first man of this type I ever got to be around and observe. This type of guy really doesn’t like women but the women go wild for them. I still find this confusing.
We got along and he enjoyed having a sidekick who looked up to him, someone he could trust. Because, for all the bluster and noise, he was full of insecurities. And without the great looks and his giant cock, which he called “the brute” and bragged about, he was just a poor, uneducated, Italian kid from the north end of Boston. A fire burned in him and threatened to burn him down but, to his credit, he passed through it time and time again without becoming a drunk or an addict. He’d say, “Let’s walk,” and off we would go on the streets of Madrid for hours until he calmed down.
Lots of times he was in a crisis in his relationship with Ruth. He would go off with some beautiful Swedish girl who was passing through town and Ruth would always find out about it and threaten to leave, pack her bags. But she had no place to go and even if he secretly wished she would go, he was dependent on her for the money and for being there, the loving mother figure in the old Oedipal way. His own mother he hated, which explains a lot no doubt. But explaining things doesn’t change them.
The Korean War took its toll. He went in at age seventeen, lying about his age, and saw some brutal fighting there, something history has ignored for some reason. I still don’t know much about it and most people don’t. His best friend was killed right next to him. He brought the bloody tee shirt home and had it stored under his bed with his private treasures. One day when he was out of the house his mother threw the shirt out. I think that’s when he left home for good. He hated her for that and for lots of other related insensitivities and coldness.
Other indignities he had suffered stayed with him. He told this story to me more than once: “When I was just a little kid some bigger kids grabbed me in the playground and pulled my pants down and pissed on me and rubbed my face in it. I swore I would get them back. And I never forgot. By the time I got back from the army I weighed two hundred pounds and was all muscle. I went to each one of their houses and, of course, they didn’t know who I was. But I would say, ‘Didn’t you go to school over on Madison Street?’ I would watch them as I added more information and saw them begin to realize who was in front of them, in their house. And then I beat them to a pulp.”
Even at the time I wasn’t sure this was a true story but it was an important story somehow. And it could be true. He wasn’t afraid of anything physical as far as I could tell. For example, the bullfight is the heart of Spanish culture even today and at that time even more so because there was so little else of popular culture to compete with it.
My associations grew quickly until I knew most of the non-Spanish, English-speaking people who were in the neighborhood, about thirty people. Spain was so cheap and such a great place to be then. People I knew were students of flamenco and Spanish, dancers, writers, musicians, actors, and travelers. There was even an FBI informer posing as a writer, which was the wrong cover for him since he was totally inarticulate. His name was Ted. Looking back, I think he was there to keep an eye on the American expatriate population to make sure we didn’t embarrass our country or make trouble for the Spanish dictatorship.
Back home, J. Edgar Hoover was in charge of the FBI and his ideas about government weren’t far from Franco’s. There were lots of eyes watching. Spain was a fascist country then and a strict Catholic country. All of us had to be aware of that and not step too far out of line. We saw cars pull up and men get out and pick someone up in the plaza, put him in the car, never to be seen again. We knew people who were warned not to express their anti-Franco political views in the bars.
There was an unofficial curfew at midnight when you had to be off the street. If you came home later you had to clap three times and wait to hear the jangle of keys announcing the presence of a guard who would open the gate to your building. It wasn’t a strict curfew but it allowed the authorities to keep track of what was going on. There was no crime and I didn’t have to worry about my motorcycle on the street.
Even though I had great romantic notions about freedom and democracy, I saw that Franco’s Spain had some undeniable benefits for the expatriates. It was incredibly cheap and it was safe. Basically, Spain was like it had been for most of the previous hundred years. In the countryside, time stretched out much farther into
I settled into my little pension, “La Salamanca.” And Aurelio showed me how the Madrilenos live. There were many coffee bars where, during the day, one would stand at the rail and drink a café con leche and in the evening, when people finished work at eight, these same places would fill to the brim as people relaxed and ate tapas and drank glasses of tinto, red wine. Tapas are small portions of different great things from olives to seafood and they are an institution in Spanish culture and cuisine.
In Madrid, people relate well to each other and enjoy each other’s company. They move as a big amorphous group through the tapas bars at night enjoying the evening and the company, winding down from the workday until dinner at about nine or ten. And then they are up again in the morning and on the move from about seven, beginning work at eight, finishing at twelve, and then a siesta until four when they put in another four hours of work and off again to the cafes. Of course, people like me worked around all this, observing it and participating when it was convenient or interesting to do so. And there were other people like me, travelers, seekers, drifters, and hustlers. It wasn’t long before I met them.
Down on the corner of my street, on the edge of the plaza, was a café called El Principe, “The Prince.” I hadn’t more than pulled myself onto a stool and ordered a coffee when a tall, bearded beatnik-looking dude came in and asked me if I was Don Knee and I said I wasn’t. This was Sebastiano James Cavalieri from Boston and he was thirty-two, a Korean War veteran, and a sometime actor in the “B” films being made in Madrid at that time including the early Clint Eastwood “spaghetti westerns.” He and “Clint” had served in the war together which gave him some influence to get small parts in the movies. Clint Eastwood’s name didn’t mean anything then. He was known to be an established “B” actor. That’s all.
Don Knee showed up, another beatnik who was trying to write a screenplay for a Dostoyevsky novel. Supposedly he had the rights to it for a certain length of time and needed to hustle up the money for the movie. He was in his forties and travelling with a slightly worn young woman named Marlene from hillbilly country, Missouri I think, who had run away from a second marriage to follow him. Her first marriage was at age fifteen I remember.