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.

When I moved back to Madrid last month, I expected to find streets snarled in the same honking tangle of traffic. When I used to live here, 12 years ago, walking down the street was an obstacle course. Cars were parked haphazardly on sidewalks and double-parked in the street, motorcycles zigzagged between cars, and we pedestrians squeezed through as best we could. The right to drive and park anywhere was supreme. After all, cars are how the Spanish measure their status in the middle-class democracy that emerged after Franco. 'No me toques ni el coche ni el pepino,' I once heard a driver scream at a sideswiping motorcyclist. That is, 'don't touch my car or my weenie.' Some things are sacred.

That was during the Gulf War. As my friends, students, and I demonstrated against the bombing of Baghdad, I reminded them that their fossil-fuel habits come with a price tag much heftier than car payments, insurance, and gas prices. Few suspected that dependence on Arab petroleum would involve ongoing military campaigns in the Middle East, much less another war with Iraq. How much easier to shout slogans, blame it all on Bush p?re, then fill 'er up, and drive home.

At the same time, in Holland and Germany, Green Party members were already coming up with a cockamamie scheme to line city streets with spikes, broaden sidewalks, and eliminate curbs in an effort to ban the private automobile from the center of the city. The leveling of the curb converts the street into one wide sidewalk, through which vehicles are allowed to proceed slowly, one at a time, like drops through a narrow spout. The spikes prevent parking, except for a few slots reserved for the handicapped or residents, and make passing or speeding impossible.

The pace slows, the air clears, newly planted trees sprout, and you can hear yourself think.

Here cars are trespassers, not people on foot.

At first merchants opposed the pedestrian street, afraid people wouldn't flock downtown to shop anymore. But businesses on renovated streets are booming, as is real estate in 'pedestrianized' neighborhoods. This mentality has even produced a new verb in Spanish: peatonizar.

One reason I've moved back to Europe is to walk down a city street, an essential right most Americans don't even realize we've forfeited. Automobiles were originally conceived for long-distance jaunts, not as door-to-door, two-ton urban wheelchairs. But trying to talk Americans out of their fossil-fuel habit is like trying to talk someone off crack. And as with any addiction, the horizon for change has simply vanished.

What I continue to see on the horizon are the flaming oil wells that blackened the sky over Kuwait at the end of the Gulf War. That, and ground zero on the morning of September 11.

What a terrible price we pay just to move our bodies across the surface of the earth.

This is why I am so enamored of the short metal posts in my neighborhood. I want to tie a red ribbon around each one, give it a name, celebrate its birthday. These posts say no not only to cars, but to both of those sandy, fundamentalist oil kingdoms, Texas and Saudi Arabia, and to the greed, terrorism, and environmental disaster implicit in the tyranny of black gold. They form a spiky Maginot line of defense against an invasion that swallows everything in its path.

Excerpted from 'Short Metal Posts and the Tyranny of Black Gold,' in North American Review (Sept./Oct. 2003), an art and literary journal published by the University of Northern Iowa. Subscriptions: $22/yr. (6 issues) from 1222 W 27th St., Cedar Falls, IA 50614.

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