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.
Romantics have a special feeling for the losers of that war and I did then and still do. All my trips to Spain have involved the contemplation of that war and the observation of its effects in the culture. But right now, I had to find the center of town. I got to “Sol” which means sun and is the center of Madrid, like Times Square is to New York. I spent a night in a hotel there and then, with help from the staff, found another much cheaper place on the Plaza de Santa Ana nearby. This place, a pension, cost fifty cents a day with two meals. I had my own room for a while but soon they put me in with another border, which gave them another room to rent. And also, I believe, the older couple who ran the place felt I needed somebody to keep an eye on me. It was so cheap I just went along with them.
My roommate, Aurelio, was a high school math teacher. He was short and round, about forty, not married but engaged. He looked like one of the three stooges with that same wild hair sticking out the back and bald on top. He had big brown eyes and was very nice, a very good guy. We got along well and eventually would go for coffee or to dinner with his girlfriend. Because he had promised to marry her and because she was a little past the marrying age by Spanish standards, he was allowed to feel her up on the weekends up there in those piney woods I had passed through on the way down to Madrid. He would come back and say, “Ella me trato muy, muy bueno este fin de semana! She treated me very, very good this weekend!”
Meanwhile, I was trying to grow up, figure things out, and have fun all at the same time. Here in Madrid my real life began, here on the Plaza de Santa Ana, a place Hemingway loved, a place that was my own.
As I headed south and began to pick up a hint of spring in the wind, I believed that my hard times were behind me and that new and good things were up ahead. Feeling good on the motorcycle, passing through the towns along the Bay of Bayonne and seeing spring flowers in window boxes on houses; all the beauty of the road healed the loneliness of the previous months.
It wasn’t long before I reached the Spanish border north of Bilbao, the heart of the Basque country, Pais Vasco. All of a sudden, I was hearing Spanish instead of French and it felt warm and familiar. It was getting dark as I passed through Bilbao. Men in berets were on the corners and sidewalks, people going home from work. The road was thick with trucks and diesel fumes which actually smelled good to me.
On the other side of town, I found a place to stay for the night and had a meal served by a Spanish girl about my age. Boys she might have known were not staying in hotels, however modest, or riding a new motorcycle. They were in school or, more likely, working. And my blazing red hair stood out. We had a couple of words as I tested my Spanish. Luckily, I couldn’t remember how to say, “Will you marry me and have my babies?” My upbringing, thick with fairy tales, gave me the ability to see things as they should be, or could be, or would be but rarely as they are. This has its own beauty in the realm of feeling. And so, with the Spanish waitress, I could imagine all her feelings for her without her help, and was almost persuaded to settle down right there. But I pulled myself away, tragically, and with scenes of Romeo and Juliet playing in my mind, I fired up my steel horse and pointed her south to Madrid.
The early spring weather was still cold even in Spain and I found a mountain range between me and my destination. In the Sierra de Guadarrama, north of Madrid, there was snow on the ground in places but the sun was out and not much wind. I passed through piney woods where sunlight cut through the dark straight trees and made the forest floor glow. At the crest of the mountains, I could see the road to Madrid stretching out before me.
A blast of warm air hit me and the cold was gone as if I had suddenly entered a different world. The sun sparkled and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as I started my decent. The road itself was new, with long gentle curves and not car in sight. With all the hard miles left behind, I cranked the throttle and flew down that mountain at a hundred miles an hour yelling at the top of my lungs “Yahoooooooooooooo!”
Before I knew it, I was traveling through the outskirts of Madrid seeing signs that said, “Veintecinco Anos de Pax,” ( twenty-five years of peace), a reminder that Francisco Franco’s fascist rule had kept order for the twenty-five years since the Spanish Civil War.
The rain stopped sometime in the night and a reasonable morning followed. After cleaning my bike and thanking the people at the hotel I headed for Paris with no money but with enough gas to get there. I had the address of a man Mark and I had met on the boat. That was all I had. His name was Bernard Goode. He was a waiter who had worked at a French restaurant in New York.
Bernard was living with his family in an old apartment building in a poor neighborhood. It was a long walk up many flights to the one room three people called home. Bernard’s wife was there. She had heard of me and Mark, but Bernard, who spoke some English, was out working until late at night and her son was still at school. So, she parked me next door with the neighbor whose name was Florien. He was happy to greet me and invite me into his room which was even smaller than theirs. And we commenced to try to communicate.
He showed me pictures of his favorite cats from the past and pictures of his favorite friends, men who had visited Paris and enjoyed his company. This was all beginning to challenge my naiveté and make me nervous but I kept hoping for the best. Florien had a shelf of curios and statues above the bed and a statue of Adonis. He kept pointing to it and poking at my thigh as if to say my thighs were as nice as Adonis’s, a great compliment he seemed to think. I did whatever I could short of slapping him to signal that I didn’t like that kind of attention but it wasn’t working.
Hours passed and Bernard was still not home. The inevitable moment arrived, bedtime. It was a small bed. I told him, “I’m sleeping on the floor.” He protested and said he would sleep on the floor. That was ok with me. But as soon as I was drifting off to sleep, sure enough, he slid in between the sheets. Not wanting to panic, I hoped for the best. And he was behaving himself. I couldn’t sleep but I was very tired and eventually I began to drift off. And then….
I felt a hand reaching over to grab for my cock. I bolted upright like a jack in the box on a tight spring. My head hit the shelf over the bed and all the statues went into orbit. I know some hit the ceiling. Florien flew out of bed and hit the wall. He was terrified. I told him “You stay on that floor or I kill you.” By the way, you can say this in any language and people will understand it. Actually, I felt bad because I scared him so much and he was a nice person. But I finally got a good night’s sleep.
Next morning Bernard was home and his son too and I told them I wasn’t spending another night with Florien. They understood and the four of us shared their little space for the next two nights, the son and I on the floor. Their son, Andre, was a good kid, a bright kid who was interested in everything. He was about sixteen so we were actually close in age.
Eventually, I reunited with my friend Mark who took me to his little place. I immediately collapsed with chills and a fever and then a long, long sleep, more than twenty-four hours. When I finally woke, I was ok again but my condition had scared his landlady. She wanted me to leave. My restlessness drove me on toward Madrid where, at least, I knew the language.
Even Italy is cold in March and this was England. My leather jacket kept out the wind but my dungarees didn’t. There was no windscreen or fairing on that classic motorcycle I was beginning to love so much. I got as far as I could toward the English Channel before pulling into an inn that was also a pub. I didn’t have much money and I couldn’t get any more until Paris. I took a cheap room and ran the bath but found that, by the time it filled up, the hot water was only tepid. I got in and stayed as long as possible but couldn’t get warm. After a sandwich at the pub and a dreamless sleep, I was ready early the next morning early to head for Dover, to board the ship, and to France.
Finding some rags, I cleaned the cold March mud off my precious Triumph, shined her up, and got on the road. And this time it wasn’t long before I saw the white cliffs of Dover shining from a sun break through the heavy gray clouds over the English Channel. I was on the edge of hypothermia. The power of a few sunrays and a calming of the wind were welcome and important. I saw the beauty of those chalk cliffs, the sun lighting them, and felt the warmth spreading over me at the same time. On the boat I found a warm bench near the engine room and fell into a dead sleep.
On the other side, in France, I drove for a while to get away from the congestion of the port and found a café where I could warm up and get something to eat before the long leg of the trip coming up. I didn’t have much money left. A spoiled child from a privileged and sheltered background is not well prepared for certain realities of the world. At that café I paid with my last traveler’s check and accepted the change in francs with perfect trust.
The road was cold again as I traveled south to Paris. France wasn’t any warmer than England and it wasn’t long before I had to pull over. There was a frigid, light rain falling. The only shelter was a big haystack in a field and a storage shed which was locked. I wiggled into the hay for a while but that didn’t work. I had no choice but to move on.
The rain got worse and night closed in. I was freezing when, finally, I got to a small town with a little hotel and café. That was when I realized I had been cheated earlier and that my money was gone. Only the goodness of the French people in that cafe saved me. They could see the shape I was in and gave me a room in the attic somewhere and a little food. In the café, someone bought me a couple of glasses of wine that warmed me while the freezing rain outside poured down in torrents. Maybe the people in that café were warmed too by their own kindness. It was a nice moment for very weary stranger on the road. I slept in peace in the little attic room.
I had been living in a lonely room in a boarding house. I walked up five flights to get to it. In the two months I was there, I don’t remember seeing other tenants. There was a hot pan where I cooked lamb chops and a shilling meter for heat. It was cold and, with that heater, only one side of me got warm at a time. The cleaning lady was my only friend. I heard someone in another building practicing the piano.
It was a big change in my life becauseI realized my introversion, actually enjoying my days alone at the museums and the films and the theater. But I was young and lonely too, so much so that I would see someone on the street and be sure I knew her but also know with my sane mind that it wasn’t so. I was just lonely. I kept moving, doing things. That saved me. I went everywhere in London.
Finally, the money came through and with my fist full of cash, I hustled over to the far side of town to the Triumph shop and bought the bike, a leather jacket, boots, a helmet, a pair of goggles and gloves. It was evening by then. I had the guy at the shop drive us both over to my boarding house. I only theoretically knew how to operate a motorcycle. Added to that was the pressure of a couple of other facts. My landlady was on the warpath because I was a day into the next month and she wanted me to pay the whole month. Basically, I told her,
“It ain’t gonna happen.” She countered with,
“You bloody Americans think you own the world.” And I said,
“Yeah, maybe, so what?”
The other fact was that I had luggage and a guitar, which wouldn’t go on the motorcycle. I didn’t buy saddle bags, (probably because they didn’t look cool), so I had to ship all of that ahead to Madrid, my final destination. This had to happen fast before my landlady could figure out how to squeeze me for the rent which, by now, I didn’t have anyway.
That night I was up very late reading the motorcycle manual and up very early getting my bags to the train station and then, finally, trying to start the motorcycle and make my way to the English Channel and the boat to France.
The motorcycle started and I began to know how to drive it in the London traffic and to feel a little more empowered and excited about the road I was on, what it would lead to up ahead. And I didn’t even have a change of clothes.
In February of 1964, during a season of serious storms in the north Atlantic, we got on the SS America, and headed out of New York harbor for Liverpool in England. Our ship’s quarters were more like a locker than a room, miniscule, with four bunks and a sink. We were stuffed in there with a German who never washed and an East Indian guy who never stopped throwing up. When the German wasn’t pissing in the sink, the Hindu was puking in it. Naturally, this made us want to spend as much time as possible outside the room. And that wasn’t easy because the sea was huge with mammoth rollers, the aftermath of some ferocious storm. We could hardly stand up to walk. In the lounge, the easy chair I was sitting in all of a sudden took off across the room, sliding a good fifty feet. In the bar, all the bottles broke. At dinner there was a board around the table to keep the dishes from falling off.
This is how we crossed the Atlantic, full of hope for the romantic adventures we would have and full of youth and positive forward motion. I think the biggest fallacy in my thinking at that time was the notion that somehow great things would happen on their own, that I would be recognized by the unknown masses for the talented and wonderful person I was. Now, in my advanced years, I understand that a nineteen-year-old doesn’t get much consideration from the world. But I was nineteen then and the center of the universe! If I could just get myself in an interesting situation, I thought life would provide. And of course, it does provide and did provide but not in the ways expected.
Mark went on to Paris and I stayed in London to negotiate, through a lengthy correspondence with my parents, for release of my savings so I could buy a motorcycle. This was difficult work for me because my mother, who had always given me a very long leash, extracted a solemn promise from me a few years earlier that I would never ask for a motorcycle. As a young woman she had seen an accident and a boy’s brains spilled on the pavement. Unfortunately, young men don’t have much compassion for their mothers.
A great deal of my time in London was spent finding motorcycle shops and looking over the motorcycles, BSA’s and Triumphs, the classic English bikes famous throughout the world. My heart went out to Triumph and particularly the 650 cc Triumph Bonneville with low road racing handlebars, spoked wheels, a big head lamp, twin carburetors and kick-start ignition. The one I wanted had a gold and white gas tank.
I don’t know how much that had to do with the next thing that happened in my life, maybe a lot. It shook things up, things that were not too solidly in place to begin with. In any case, there was malaise in me, a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the trajectory of my life which, if I kept going, would probably bring me most of the things I already knew from my own family, monogamy and solvency. ”Is that all there is?” That was my question. And I wasn’t alone. There was another guy, Mark, chomping at the bit for some other experience, some adventure. And he was a smart guy, someone who could articulate the inchoate longings of the post-adolescent condition with great eloquence.
“This shit sucks,” said Mark.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Fuckin A, this school is pretty shit too.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Barry and Murray and I were the smartest guys in our school. They went to Yale and I got Brown.”
“Yeah, it sucks. I could have gone to Harvard. They wanted me but since my father went there… I shoulda gone. Don’t know what I was thinking about. We got to do something else. Take a break. We’ve been in school our whole lives and don’t know shit about the world.”
“You’re right. Let’s think about taking some time off when this semester ends.”
“Yea,” I said. Like Jack Kerouac, we could go on the road, maybe to Europe. Isn’t that the place where a young man gets experience, becomes a man?”
“No Rick, that’s the Marines you’re thinking of.”
“Fuck the Marines,” I said. “The first asshole who yells at me I’ll punch in the mouth.”
“That would be a real bad idea, Rick.”
“I know that,” I said, “which is why I won’t be joining the Marines.”
“In that case maybe Paris is a better option after all.”
“Yeah, ‘April in Paris’ and beautiful girls, free love. It did a lot for Hemingway. I want to be a writer but a writer needs experience. I don’t want the war experience he had but I will take the pussy experience.”
“Fuckin A,” Mark said. “I have cousins in France we could visit. That would be a good bet for me. I’ve been studying French for years.”
“Yeah man, and you’re real good at it. That would be a selling point since, if we do this, we have to make it sound like it makes sense to our families. I already spent a summer in Mexico tuning up my Spanish. Probably I would head for Spain and keep going with it there.”
“Sounds like a plan. I guess we’re seekers after the truth or at least a different truth than we know so far. The road less traveled has got to be more interesting than the one we’re on now.”
“The suburban life I grew up in never did much for me.” I said. “My sisters and I are junior beatniks anyway. It’s just the way we are really. We don’t care about the social shit we’re supposed to care about.”
And the conversation went on like that and gave us energy and focus. We just wanted something else, even if we didn’t know exactly what it was. And we wanted it enough to jump into the unknown, ready or not. Our excitement and youthful optimism were contagious. We polished up our salesmanship skills and miraculously, despite their misgivings, our families came to believe this was a worthwhile adventure. We were to take a year off and explore Europe.
Back in boarding school where I had been cooped up learning academic skills, the book of the era was Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Like the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, I felt that the whole show was flawed and phony. Like him, I yearned to find out what was real and I was ready to take some risks to find out.
Once I got to college, I stayed between the lines of conformity but ventured out intellectually. I wrote a paper about the Communist Party of America and attended their presidential convention held in a decrepit building on the west side of midtown Manhattan. The presidential candidate was a half black/half white guy whose name I don’t remember. There were very few people there. I remember that I stood out. I definitely remember that. Then I wrote a paper about Malcolm X, somebody nobody in the white world had heard about unless, like me, they had a sister who subscribed to Ebony Magazine. That paper made me famous in the Sociology Department for ten minutes or so. I believe it is still in the archive there. So, even though I was still an Ivy League preppy, I was leaving those values behind.
On the most memorable day of my freshman year at college I walked across the campus of Brown University and down Angel Street where my psychology class was soon to begin. This was a giant lecture class taught by a little Mr. Peepers-type man with a few strings of gray/blond hair plastered on his bald pate, a luminary in the statistics branch of psychology, the dullest aspect of psychology at least for me and most of the other students as well.
Disappointment hung over the lecture hall like a dripping miasma. Endless rows of Pembroke girls wearing coke bottle glasses sharpened their pencils ready to attack the impenetrable material with their stratospheric IQs. No subject was too dull to keep them on the losing side of the bell curve! Just before class, my girlfriend, Charlene, met me on the street in front of the psych building. She knew my schedule but had never intercepted me like this before.
“Hi, what’s up?” I said.
“President Kennedy has been shot.”
“What? Are you kidding? This is bullshit. Everybody loves the president. Is he ok?”
I couldn’t imagine that he was shot. Things like that didn’t happen at that time. He was the hope of our generation, the promise of good things, good changes in our world, brotherly love, civil rights, maybe even free sex, which would be a fine improvement. It was a shock; it just didn’t compute in my head.
“Ok Charlene, he is shot but he will be ok, right?”
“No, he is not ok Rick. They didn’t say he is dead but he is definitely not ok.”
So much for the psych class. We just walked together down to a local diner, Greg’s, and sat in a booth drinking coffee and listening to the radio with a lot of other people who had heard about it. We all listened not knowing what to do or say. And then the word came. “The president is dead.”