An American in Madrid


| May / June 2004

Author's note: This essay was written during 2002 when I lived in Malasa?a,strolling among tomatoes and geraniums. When in Madrid, I now live in an apartment facing Atocha, the railway station where terrorist bombs killed two hundred people and wounded thousands more on 3/11, the most tragic morning in Spain since the Civil War. For three decades the Spanish have suffered through attacks from Basque separatists, and have learned to make friends with fear. But, everything changed in Madrid on 3/11, as it did in New York on 9/11. That day may usher in the paranoid world that Americans have come to know -- of metal detectors, body searches, and armed guards everywhere. As Pablo Neruda wrote in Madrid at the onset of the Civil War, waking from his own idyll of tomatoes and geraniums: 'Come see the blood in the streets.'

I'm sitting at an outdoor caf? in my new neighborhood, studying the curious metal posts that line the streets like squat toy soldiers at attention. Once in a while a car noses past, guided by these stubborn rows of thigh-high spikes stationed every few feet. Drivers really hate them, I'm told, but the truth is I adore them. You see, I'm among the last of that dying breed, an American pedestrian. These short metal posts represent good news to me, the first baby step in the right direction since Ford cranked up his Model T.

From my caf? table, a village scene unfolds before me: kids are playing on a jungle gym, couples are strolling arm in arm down the middle of a brick street, an elderly woman is trailing her shopping cart, and a young woman with rainbow braids is lingering over kiwis at the fruit stall. No, this isn't an affluent German suburb or a tourist mecca in the Tuscan hills. I'm in the battered heart of Madrid, a frantic megalopolis expanding outward at the pace of Los Angeles.

Hardly an ecological paradise, this is a city where the Marx brothers seem in charge of urban planning. Most streets are topsy-turvy mazes of open construction sites -- whirring cranes, buildings shrouded by scaffolding and drop cloths, containers heaped with debris. During the day jackhammers set the staccato rhythm of the street, and in the wee hours garbagemen toss trash anywhere but in the trucks bearing the slogan: 'Madrid, Clean and Green.'



Malasa?a, where I live, is a working-class neighborhood known until recently for its junkies, prostitutes, and thieves. During the 1980s director Pedro Almod?var made the area famous as the cinematic background of the underground movida Madrile?a, the cultural scene that exploded after Franco's death. But when the glamour moved on, the neighborhood remained dark, desperate, and choked with traffic. To turn the neighborhood around, the city didn't go after the criminals -- it went after the cars.

Dreams often come true when you least expect them to.