An American in Madrid

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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