Dawn broke gray and silent on another dreary London day. A cold March rain hit my face and drizzled down my neck as I snuck past my landlady’s apartment and out the door and onto the street where my new Triumph motorcycle waited. I was ready for my escape. I was just nineteen years old, a refugee from a wealthy family in New York, and I was ready for adventure! It was nineteen sixty four.
Looking back across a stretch of time makes things clearer. At some point we can better face the truth about the past. We can see our history and our relationships for what they were. We stop being satisfied seeing them as we wish they were, as they could have been, as they should have been, and we take a deep breath and a hard look. Looking back, it is possible to see how one stage of life leads to the next, how the formation of character and personality evolve as they respond to events and experience. This is my story.
In the early 1960′s, America was the ruler of the world after defeating Germany and Japan in a war that globally claimed something like sixty million lives; almost unimaginable. Our infrastructure came out unscathed and eased us out of the great depression. Compared to the other countries involved, we were ready to rock and roll economically and in every other way. That next generation after the war enjoyed prosperity, solid middle class status, TV’s, washing machines, cheap gasoline and big cars. My two sisters and I were born into all of that and we embraced it, playing our part through our early years. But the human spirit is always trying to break out. Someone said something to the effect that ‘ people can stand anything but peace’. In the midst of all this gray-flannel normalcy and wealth, a counter culture began to develop. Jazz, the beat poets, abstract painting were all part of a spirit breaking out of the mold insisting on its uniqueness, its independence, “total harmony and total diversity,” as Edmond Swedenborg thought of it. The ‘total diversity’ aspect was what interested us and people like us, the ‘rebels without a cause’.
In nineteen sixty one, led by our oldest sister, Ann, we started hanging out in Greenwich Village, in New York City, downtown Manhattan, at the Gaslight Café and the Bitter End and the Café Wha. MacDougal Street was a different world teaming with life, clatter and bang, offbeat, imaginative and dangerous, too, since people there were not following the same rules we had been taught. We couldn’t get enough of it.
Mary, the next sister, was a true beauty. She started dating Tom Paxton, the folk singer. I was about sixteen when all this started so I just kept my mouth shut and absorbed it all, the wildness and adventure of it. My focus was on learning how to play the guitar. Beyond the guitar I struggled to learn, I absorbed the politics too. The freedom rides to the South to help with voter registration for disenfranchised blacks had begun. Civil rights turned culture upside down, first in the South and then in the North. A classmate of Ann’s from our home town of Pelham, a suburb of NYC, was killed down there. His name was Mickey Schwerner, one of the first white casualties of the movement.
The war in Vietnam started slowly without anyone’s noticing for a while. Gradually, the draft for the Army became a more serious concern. Phil Ochs sang passionately from the little stage at the Gaslight: “I Ain’t ‘a Marchin’ Any More.” The Scottish poet, Ewan McCall, wrote a song called “The Ballad of a Carpenter” that portrayed Jesus as the leader of a socialist movement. Many forces conspired to bring down the status quo which Henry Miller called the “Air Conditioned Nightmare”.
Back in boarding school where I had been cooped up learning my academic skills, the book of the era was Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”. Like the protagonist, Holden Caufield, 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 during my Freshman year at college I walked across the green pastures 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 to most people I would guess. 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 end 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 hadn’t 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, and so forth. 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.”
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 good selling point since, if we do this, we have to make it sound good 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.
In February of nineteen sixty four, 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 throwing up 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 50 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 middle 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 always gave me a very long leash, had extracted a solemn promise from me a few years earlier that I would never ask to have a motorcycle. As a young woman she had seen an accident and a young man’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 bikes, 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 handle bars, spoked wheels, a big head lamp, twin carburetors and kick start ignition. The one I wanted had a gold and white gas tank.
The new chapter started off well with some challenges just to get out of town which I referred to at the beginning of this story. 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. I realized my latent 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 this 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. The reason for this was that I only theoretically knew how to ride on 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.
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 old motorcycle I was beginning to love so much. I got as far as I could toward the 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 to go the next morning early – to Dover, to 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 asleep.
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 which 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.
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 Gode. He was a waiter who had worked at a French restaurant in New York and was now reestablishing himself in Paris.
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 one-room which was a little 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!” You can say this in any language and people will understand you, by the way. 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 eagerly toward Madrid where, at least, I knew the language.
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 the houses; all the beauty of the road healed the loneliness of the previous two 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 it 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 another car in sight. With all the hard miles left behind, I cranked the throttle and flew down that mountain at 100mph 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 25 years since the Spanish Civil War.
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 50 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 – 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 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.
La Plaza de Santa Ana
I settled into my little pension, “La Salamanca”. And my roommate, 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 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 work day 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 ran away from a second marriage to follow him. Her first marriage was at age fifteen I remember.
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 the past.
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-middle 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 cafe 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, someone who was neither competition nor dangerous to his ego. 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 soldier’s 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. 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 words… 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.
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.
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 cafe “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 could appreciate a little bit 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 would require 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 still struggling with 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 little 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. Emilia was very bright and alert. 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 which we heard often.
Her life wasn’t easy but, other than being tired occasionally, she never complained. And even though I am describing these 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 day after day would go by when 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 male into the scene right before a 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 onto 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 their culture provided. And the nights in May in Madrid are unforgettable. After the heat of day they cool down to just the right temperature. The air is good, there’s a little breeze and you want it to go on and on and on, the night passing, moving toward daybreak.
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. She was willing and even suggested it but I was not ready for that. Primarily, it was hard for me to figure how Don, the guy she was living with, would feel about it. Probably he couldn’t have cared less but that was too difficult a notion for me at that stage and, really, it still is. Everybody cares even if they pretend not to. And I liked the feelings of romance, the not knowing and all the ups and downs and the mystery of pursuing my little Spanish girl.
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 the 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. 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 ranches where the bulls were raised at night and 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) because his style wasn’t classic but mostly because he came from a poor background. In those days less than a hundred families controlled most 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.
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.
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 fresh and 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 and marveled at 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, both of us acknowledging the horrors of the holocaust and trying to get past it, which, of course, is not entirely 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. 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 veh!
Our expatriate crowd had a local godfather, a non-violent one named Paco. He was Mr. “Sportin Life” and a lot of fun. He had more money than the rest of the locals because of scams he controlled and he cultivated the expat crowd because one of the scams involved us. You would see Paco from far away making his way through the narrow streets hunkered down behind the wheel of his 1930s vintage Packard convertible with fenders that stretched out a mile in front. It seemed impossible that car could maneuver through those streets. His waxed moustache stabbed the air; his smiling teeth clamped down on his cigarette holder, A Panama hat completed the look of total gangster chic. Paco had seen all the American gangster movies and saw himself as a mini Al Capone without the violence. I can’t imagine him hurting anyone. He seemed to be having so much fun.
It didn’t take Paco long to figure that Sebastiano was the leader of our pack and that’s how I got to know him and his friends. The expat group was always hard up for money. We sold blood, taught English, and did whatever we could to maintain our beatnik expat life. In Franco’s Spain there was a shortage of cars because their production wasn’t good at the time. The wealthier people in Spain could afford a good car but they were on a long waiting list. However, a foreigner could buy a car without waiting. So Paco would recruit the foreigners to go to the central office and buy a Spanish car called a Seat, which was then turned over to the Spanish customer. Paco had a “soldier” in the central office that processed the transactions so the whole thing was a walk in the park. We got to know Paco’s friends who were just slightly older than I – all very good-natured guys to be with.
In addition to the assorted dancers, poets, writers, people studying flamenco and occasional tourists passing through our scene at the Plaza de Santa Ana, there was a little Englishman named Harold Smith who seemed very proper and very British. He and Ruth afforded a bit of culture and élan to our unwashed group. Harold was another one whose purpose was not clear. He was studying Spanish but was not good at it and I remember something about “difficulties” he had had in England. We never knew the details but suspected he was laying low for a while. In our group nobody pressed for the details. Harold was always in a tweed suit even when the streets were sizzling like a frying pan. Madrid is a big dry plateau, a high desert, and from May through September the heat is brutal during the day. But the English are English and never more English than when they are out of their country. In India they built fireplaces in their houses and carried umbrellas to shade them from the sun if not the rain.
One day Sebastiano met me and said, “How about goin’ to Morocco?”
“In a car?” I offered.
“No, the two of us on the bike.”
“Really? It’s okay with me,” I said.
“We can buy pot down there. It’s legal. And we’ll bring it back and sell it to the actors on the movie set. Make some money.”
“Okay Sebastiano. Sounds good.” That’s how long I took to decide.
We started thinking about how we were going to make the trip. I was impressed that Sebastiano was willing to ride on the back of the Triumph for a long trip on old winding Spanish roads, without a helmet and with a nineteen-year-old driving. Also, he was a big guy, maybe six-foot-three or four. It was a lot to take on. But we made plans and set a date. Everything was moving toward that time.
Ruth came by my pension one morning early, very upset, and got me out of bed. She warned me not to go. She felt Sebastiano was taking advantage of me somehow. I didn’t understand that. In any case, I wanted to go. It gave me a focus and a purpose, which, other than Emilia in the bar, I didn’t have. It was obvious to other people that my life was adrift. One time, when I was sitting in the plaza drinking horchata and watching the cockroaches rock and roll in the leaves by the wall, Felipe, the older waiter in the bar, talked to me. As I lit another cigarette he said, “You know I had a friend who only smoked three cigarettes every day, one after every meal, never any more. When you think about it what else does a man have?” I thought about this for a long time. I realized he was trying to help me and teach me something. I took it to heart but it took many years to manifest in my life. I was just entering a phase where I figured that, if a little of something is good, a lot of it must be better.
Ted, the FBI guy, got wind of the trip and also tried to steer me off without directly letting on that he knew the specifics. To the more responsible people in our crowd, the notion of me riding the motorcycle to Morocco with Sebastiano on the back could not be a good thing. I never had a second thought. I was flattered that Sebastiano thought I was good enough on the motorcycle to put his life in my hands, literally. And the road called to me-an exotic road to the south-Granada, Algeciras, Ceuta, Tetuan, Tangiers – Africa!
On a cool early morning in June we climbed on the Triumph and headed out of town getting a feeling for how this was going to go and how the bike would handle. A motorcycle is much different to drive and to brake with two big people on it. What I remember is that it worked great. Sebastiano never complained. I pulled over when I was tired and we would get something to eat or drink. We spent the nights in cheap places and at one point had to spend an extra night because something went wrong with the bike. In Spain, you don’t have to look far to find someone who can fix your motorcycle. It was soon on the road better than ever.
Spain was poor in those days and the road was peaceful-not much traffic. Some of the road was very good and other parts full of holes. It was tricky sometimes. We cruised down into Andalusia, the southern region that produces lots of olive oil. The olive trees were in bloom and the smell of rich olive oil permeated everything. We cruised through miles and miles of orchards and small towns totally involved with the trees and the fruit. The smell was intoxicating in the clean hot air. Everything was low-tech agriculture in harmony with the land. These towns and their olive groves had been like this for centuries. We stopped to eat at little houses, private homes sometimes, and would take whatever they had. One time we had a dozen eggs drenched in olive oil with sliced, salted tomatoes in oil too, on the side. With good homemade bread it made a great meal. Another time a woman brought out a rabbit by its ears and twenty minutes later we were looking at it on the plate. And that’s how we rolled along at that magical time of year when the countryside seemed from another age and its people tied firmly to their roots deep in the land.
There’s a range of mountains, La Sierra Morena, in the south of Spain. You have to cross it to get to Granada and Algeciras where the boat to Morocco is docked. The road is steep and winding with one hairpin turn after another going up and then down again. It’s exhausting on a motorcycle where one needs to find the line around the turns with good accuracy. And it’s especially tough coming down the mountains with two people aboard because of inertia and gravity. With a motorcycle it’s about gearing down and using the brakes as little as possible and judging the turns, one after another.
Just about the time we were out of the mountains and going through the last series of downhill turns we came to a short tunnel about two or three hundred feet long. This was ordinarily not a big deal except that it was black as coal in that tunnel. I can’t remember if I turned on the Triumph’s big chrome light or not. It wouldn’t have done much good anyway because the contrast between the intense Spanish sun and the black of the tunnel was too much for the eye. But the road was good so there was no concern until, in the middle of that black tunnel, we hit a hole that almost spoiled everything.
From high off my seat somewhere in space I struggled to keep the front fork from going out of control. Sebastiano went so far up in the air that only one of his hands was able to touch the top of my helmet. It was like a circus act. Somehow the motorcycle kept going and we literally fell out of space and back into position. We pulled over on the other side of the tunnel and took stock of ourselves. I was sure the motorcycle had a wrecked front wheel but it was okay. And after a few minutes of nervous congratulations we were on the road again, very grateful and a little wiser about the traps the road can set for the unsuspecting. After that, I think we felt like we could travel around the world like this and be all right. We descended from the mountains and saw Granada in the distance. The aroma of gardenias and all the flowers of the Alhambra rose up to meet us on the hot afternoon air.
Now we were getting close to the Mediterranean and our destination on the straits of Gibraltar. The next day, in the late afternoon, we got to Algeciras, found a small hotel, and started walking everywhere-way out on the breakwater where the boats were coming in and around the big horseshoe walk along the ocean that every town of this type seems to have. But Algeciras was different in other ways.
The Moors were in Spain for seven hundred years and controlled all of Andalusia. Their influence could be seen everywhere. Here in Algeciras, they were still in control and the place had a mysterious and distinctly Muslim feel to it. Mosaic tile work decorated the small hotels and restaurants and, in the cafes, there were dark men with sunglasses reading papers and waiting for messages or to meet somebody. People spoke Arabic as much as Spanish. The kitchen smells were different-cumin and coriander and fennel instead of garlic and olive oil-and we knew we were entering a different world.
Sebastiano was a good guy to travel with. Around me he didn’t display that crazy, manic side we saw so often back at the Plaza de Santa Ana. He knew I liked him for who he was and he didn’t have to be anything else. Lots of times people in restaurants would think we were father and son even though genetically we were very different. He would say with force, “No, somos companeros!” For a young man out on his own for the first time it was a nice, protected feeling being with him, like having a father who was also a buddy or a strong big brother. With my decent command of the language and his intimidating fearlessness we managed very well together.
The boat to Morocco sailed from Algeciras across the straits of Gibraltar to Ceuta, which is a little postage-stamp piece of territory in Africa belonging to Spain. The sun blazed. Objects cast impenetrable black shadows as in De Chirico’s paintings. On the boat we could feel the heat coming out of Africa and the Mediterranean sparkled its own special cerulean blue light. A breeze softened the heat. Every variegated shape of fair-weather cumulus cloud moved across the blue sky. A group of foreign legionnaires smoked on deck and talked together, rough, virile men, their shirts open to give their chest hair freedom and all of them looking like they were ready to kill.
Our plan was to go to Tetuan and buy kief, which is what they call pot there, and then go to Tangiers and take the boat back to Algeciras from there. The reason for not going straight back was that we had heard that the pot sellers turn around and inform on you. That way they get their pot back or some kind of kickback. This kind of information made me aware that we didn’t know what we were doing but I was also aware that maybe we didn’t have to know what we were doing. Marijuana was hardly known in those days except to a small group of beatniks, musicians and actors. I knew enough not to be afraid of it because, back home in New York, Felix Cavallieri said it was good medicine. Felix later made a lot of money and a lot of good music with a group called “The Rascals.” He had gotten some pot from the jazz master of the organ, Jimmy Smith. But the rest of us couldn’t get any. And now I was going to find out about it in the most exotic place possible.
Morocco at that time was literally like stepping back into Biblical times. Crossing into Spain from the rest of Europe was like going back into time hundreds of years. This was like going back a thousand. Tetuan is in the desert by the Mediterranean. They manage to grow food with irrigation. At that time it was all agriculture and crafts and Islam. We saw only men. Women, if they were out at all, were covered in burkas. The road was good with no traffic because there were few vehicles and the air was clean. It was still hot as we pulled into Tetuan in the late afternoon; people resting inside waiting for evening. It was a very quiet place, a small town with a beautiful center square, palm trees and, on the buildings, mosaic tiles.
We heard the call to prayer from the minaret as we circled the zocalo ,the main plaza, and looked for a place to park the Triumph so we could walk around. No sooner had I killed the engine and dropped the kickstand than there were a couple of young boys telling us where to spend the night and where to park the motorcycle safely. They had a garage for the motorcycle and a good, cheap rooming house for us. We got into our room and put our feet up, happy to be off the road for a while. No more than five minutes later there was a knock on the door.
Striding into the room was a big, rugged-looking Arab with a Fez cap on his head. It was scary. He was about Sebastiano’s age and, like Sebastiano, he had a very commanding presence. We didn’t know what was going to happen. He said, in perfect hipster talk, “Whoa babies, be cool. I’m the cat in this town. Everything’s gonna to be fine. Take it easy man.” This was so unexpected it totally stopped our minds. His name was Abid but he liked to be called “Bubba.” He had lived in New York for ten years and knew everything about Greenwich Village and the hip scene there. He put us at ease because what he communicated more than anything was how happy he was that we had come into his territory. He knew our purpose there and so did everyone else in the town just by looking at us riding in on that great motorcycle. He said he could help us. He did so immediately by pulling out a couple of big joints of kief and lighting them up on the spot, giggling all the time. We sucked down that mysterious smoke like a couple of vacuum cleaners. It wasn’t long before reality started to warp in a very pleasant way. All the sounds and colors and the light from the window and the breeze with its African spice came forward and the mind’s chatter drifted into the background.
The next couple of days were time out of time. “Bubba” had a car and a driver to take us around to meet his friends and see the sights. For me to be able to sink back in the seats as a passenger and watch the scenery passing by as the sun began to set was a great luxury after the stress of the motorcycle journey. We trusted the situation and felt we were with kindred spirits. The kief heightened every sense and pushed the exotic to a further level of wonder. We drove around and out of town to the beach where Abid brought us to a teahouse. He knew everyone there and we were greeted warmly. Sugary mint tea was served and, as we sat at the simple wooden tables and looked out at the beach through the open sides of the building, men would come up to our table just to say “Welcome, thank you for being here.” As the sun set we smoked more kief and listened to Moroccan music from the radio. We walked out on the huge expanse of unspoiled beach to see the sun sink into the Mediterranean. He took us then to a place to eat couscous and later to another gathering place where, once again, there were only men. And, once again, they greeted us with warmth and friendliness and offered us hashish and other kinds of hashish candy. In this Muslim country the women stayed in and only the men socialized outside the home. Kief was not even illegal, maybe a slight misdemeanor. It was alcohol that was the forbidden fruit there.
We made our business arrangements. The next evening I was to ride on my motorcycle out into the country with an unknown Moroccan on the passenger seat. I had the money from the movie crew and some of my own to buy two kilos of kief – almost five pounds. This was a little tense because anything could happen. I was completely vulnerable. I could disappear easily.
The appointed time came and the contact person met us. He and I got on the Triumph and slipped out of town and into the dark desert night. We travelled about half an hour into the countryside. It was cold. The desert doesn’t keep its heat. The sea breeze coming off the Mediterranean and the wind chill of the motorcycle straight on my chest made my teeth chatter. I didn’t have my motorcycle jacket on, just a light suede sport jacket. The guy on the back, who was not much older than I, could tell I was cold and reached around and held the jacket closed around my neck so the wind wouldn’t get me there. We came to a little farmhouse and he showed me the keif laid out on the table on newspapers. I smelled it and gave him the money. He bagged it up and we stuffed it in our shirts and headed back to town.
With all our business accomplished the plan was to travel to Tangiers the next day. That night Sebastiano and I were on our own. We sampled our kief and it was just as good as we had hoped, as good as the night before. High as two kites we got on the motorcycle and drove toward the beach through town. That evening all the shops and bazaars were open. Everywhere there was activity and the smell of cooking, and on the beach people strolling under the stars and drinking tea, and prayers being called and the Arab music playing on many radios and street vendors singing their wares. I was driving a motorcycle through all this and not conscious of driving at all. Somehow my Triumph took care of me; I was only aware of the colors and the sounds of the unfolding scene coming at me from all sides. After another good meal at the couscous place we began to think about the next leg of the trip to Tangiers and back to Spain.
Now we had five pounds of pot to think about, protect, and hide all at the same time. We had no luggage space on the motorcycle and hardly a change of clothes with us. It’s not easy to hide five pounds of bulky herb in a situation like this. Sebastiano found a shop where he bought some big manila envelopes and tape. We were going to stuff those envelopes with kief and tape them onto our backs. What we couldn’t fit there would go into my helmet and somewhere deep in the motorcycle.
After a last uneventful night in Tangiers we headed for the first boat to Spain in the morning. Looking back, it seems like crazy luck that we were not stopped or bothered either by the Moroccans or by Spanish customs. We were so obvious and stood out so much. Possibly the motorcycle helped. All the official types of guys liked it and related to it and to the sense of adventure it suggested. And it certainly didn’t look like there was much room for any contraband. But about half an hour outside of Algeciras, on our way back to Madrid, two motorcycle cops from the Guardia Civil stopped us. Friendly but firm, they made us get off the motorcycle while they looked it over. They even had me take off my helmet. They looked right into it and right at the bags of kief underneath the banding but for some reason they didn’t, or chose not, to notice it. They let us go. If we had been caught then and sent to jail in Franco’s Spain, well, it’s hard to think about that.
So many times in my life I have wondered about why some are spared and some are caught or die. We are like salmon running up the river, facing every obstacle and nets upon nets with hardly a way around them. And still, some of us get through. Many times in my life because of my own recklessness bad things could have happened to me but they didn’t. And this was one of those prime moments. Sebastiano didn’t get shook up about this either. His war experience, no doubt, had something to do with his immunity to fear. We just kept going and felt now that we were in the clear.
On the Plaza de Santa Ana our expatriate buddies welcomed us back as heroes. Everybody was excited to sample the marijuana we had crossed the water to bring them. And one night it all came together in the home of an American beatnik who was married to a French woman. They had a nice big house and about thirty of us got together there. Everybody got a chance to smoke the kief. Most of the people had never smoked marijuana and my own experience was only two weeks old. At that time, in any case, it was not something one did continually. It was special and also expensive and not easy to get.
I was sitting on a couch with Ruth next to me and Harold Smith in his tweed suit on the other side of her. Big “Cubano” joints of kief were being rolled by Sebastiano in the corner and passed around the room. Everybody was getting high, most of them for the first time, and everybody altogether at the same time! It was momentous. We were riveted to our seats by the effects of the kief, just sitting there experiencing it and wondering what was going to happen next. Music was playing and a friendly, happy atmosphere pervaded the group.
On the couch next to me Ruth was starting to giggle because on the other side of her Harold was all red in the face and projecting a salacious gleam from his eye directed at her! He would say “Oh Ruth, Oh, Oh,” like a proper English cave man and she would giggle. But then he started touching and getting a little out of control. Finally, we both said, “You have to stop this now, Harold,” and he would demure only to rise again shortly thereafter. He was taking cover in the idea that this was all the marijuana’s fault. In the pungent cloud of pot smoke he was giving his libido free reign. Eventually he pretended a mild faint and when he came out of it he said, “Oh goodness me. I have no idea what could have possibly possessed me, etc.” We didn’t buy that but no harm was done either. No doubt, under the surface, this little Englishman was a hot porn star trapped in a tiny body wrapped in tweed. A week or so later a stout Danish girl we knew was harassed by him in the street to such an extent that she had to beat him off with an umbrella she carried. He limped into the café with quite a lump on his head. We had begun to figure out that the nature of “the difficulties” he had encountered in England were now manifesting here in Spain.
A turning point was coming now in my life – whether to stay or go home and go back to school in the fall. Sebastiano and Ruth wanted me to go in with them in renting an apartment. I could teach English. From home, my father was planning a big celebration for my mother’s fiftieth birthday and he wanted me to be the big surprise. I decided to go back.
Emilia had been talking from time to time about visiting the village outside of Madrid up in “los pinares,” the piney woods, where she had gone to school with the nuns. Our relationship had been so pure I didn’t think much about it except I remembered my roommate’s experience of those piney woods where he and his chunky fiancée indulged in carnal delights. One beautiful, clear, cool morning, Emilia and I were on the motorcycle and headed out of town. She was wearing a skirt and straddled the seat behind me. For the second time two Guardia Civil police on motorcycles stopped me, asked for my passport, talked to Emilia over to the side, and then let us go. They wanted to make sure the purity of the Spanish woman was not being compromised by some, no doubt, non-Catholic foreigner without values. And, if she was going to ride on the motorcycle, it had to be side saddle not straddling the seat with some thigh showing. They were not overbearing, just firm. In a way it both confused and impressed me. On one hand, why shouldn’t we be able to do whatever we wanted; on the other hand, why should we be able to do whatever we wanted? It sobered me up a little bit and shifted the locus of my energy from between my legs to between my ears. What were my responsibilities vis-à-vis this young woman who was taking me into the foothills of the Sierra to “los pinares”?
The city faded and the road climbed and wound around the hills. Dappled light bounced around the forest floor. Pockets of cool air hit our faces as we crossed streams in wooded glens. The approach to the village was on a dirt road and the village itself was tiny and dominated by the convent. It surprised me that no one took much notice as we parked the motorcycle and started walking on a trail out into the woods. There were so many cultural and personal signs and unspoken understandings in what we were doing. I sensed all this but without really knowing. Emilia said, “Toma la manita,” “Take the little hand,” and I did. We walked a little while and then I led us off the path into the woods. Climbing a little knoll and moving past it until we were safe from any eyes we lay down on the soft pine needles in the summer woods.
In the café and on our outings she was sharp and flirty and animated but here she was quiet, solemn and virginal. Her coal black eyes looked at me without fear, trusting. She had a white blouse on with some of that decorative fringe that made it a little special like what she would wear to church. And there was a silver crucifix around her neck. A beige skirt covered the rest of her to the knees. Her skin was so white in contrast to her black eyes and hair. Everything about her spoke of surrender and trust and sanctity of some kind. This was not something to enter into lightly and I was not sure how to proceed. Slowly I moved over to kiss her lips and we did kiss, or, at least, I kissed. Nothing was coming back my way, nothing except total surrender. Again I tried, this time with some of my best kisses practiced since the fifth grade. Nothing. I thought to myself, “Well, maybe a jump start is required.” So slowly, starting down by the ankle, and with great control for a teenager, I moved my hand up her leg toward the promised land. At about ten inches north of the knee and, with no response or resistance from Emilia other than some heightened breathing, I stopped. We got up, shook the pine needles off our clothes, and walked back to the village like the children we were, still innocent, maybe unsatisfied, but having done nothing to bring serious consequences upon us, so I thought.
Even today I don’t know the full significance of our relationship and what we did and didn’t do from her side. To go to “los pinares” with a foreigner – what could that mean? No one could know what we did or didn’t do there. But they would know that we went there; they would make assumptions. A poor Spanish girl, a rich American boy – what messages was Emilia getting at home? But what nobody knew but us was that we were too young to have a lot of guile and too young for any kind of mature love. We liked each other and appreciated each other. There was great sincerity in that even if we didn’t know what more to do about it.
I wasn’t much longer in Spain. We promised to write and we did for a while but the distance made the differences stand out and communication faded as we got re-established in our separate lives. Three years later I was in Spain again, this time as a photojournalist headed for Sevilla to photograph La Semana Santa, Holy Week. Naturally I spent a couple of days in Madrid and naturally I revisited the old familiar places. At the Café Principe I recognized no one until I saw Felipe, the waiter who had lived in the same apartment complex as Emilia on the outskirts of Madrid. He had been her protector, the one who saw her home when she was on the night shift. I went up to him and, as he slowly realized who I was, and as I asked again about Emilia, his face paled and he looked like he was seeing a ghost. He stammered, shook his head violently, and literally ran away from me. I thought about pursuing him and demanding to know but his manner made me frightened to know. In weakness or wisdom I faded back into my own life and let it be.
But that was later. Now, I was saying goodbye to Sebastiano, to Ruth, to my friends, and getting ready to be the big surprise at my mother’s fiftieth birthday party. Ted (the highway patrol/ FBI man) warned me against bringing any kief back to the states. Sebastiano had most of it anyway but I kept about six ounces in a plastic bag flat between my stomach and my belt. I was excited to share it with my friends back home.
I shipped my motorcycle to New York and went to the airport with Sebastiano. It was a warm goodbye with promises to see each other in New York. Since my father was a big-shot television producer there was a chance I could get him some work.
After an uneventful flight I was in New York passing through customs once again. On the other side of the barrier I could see my father waving eagerly, excited that the “birthday present” was extant and viable. I worked my way through the line and a perfunctory baggage check and headed for the exit to greet my father. But before I got there three men in plain clothes stopped me and said, “Mr. Winsor? Please come with us.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Nothing, we just need to ask you a few questions.” They led me to a room right off the main customs area, one of those rooms made famous in any number of movies where interrogations and torture are featured. A bare light bulb dangled from the ceiling. Nothing was on the walls and for furniture only a desk, a chair and a couple of benches. They went through my luggage again. “Mr. Winsor, can you tell us which countries you visited?”
“England, France, Spain and Morocco,” I answered, barely whispering the last country.
“Did you buy any marijuana there?”
“Frankly sir, I did. My friend and I bought a little matchbox of it. You may know that it is not illegal there. Alcohol is though.”
“Is that all, Mr. Winsor? Did you smoke it?”
“Yes sir, I did and frankly it made me sick. I didn’t want to have anything more to do with it.”
“You know, Mr. Winsor, we had a guy in here a while ago who had been in Mexico for a couple of years and we asked him if he smoked marijuana. You know what he said? ‘Sure man, doesn’t everybody?’ We sent him away for a long time.”
The customs cop with the loafers, white socks and a flat-top haircut smiled as he told this little story. Then he looked at me and said, “Now we are going to search your person, Mr. Winsor.”
“My person?” I gulped.
They took off my suede sport jacket and looked in the pockets and checked the lining and it seemed they found a few flakes of kief but nothing substantial. Then “white socks with the flat top” got down on his knees in front of me and, beginning at the ankle, patted me down, first up one leg and down the other. In the process he put his hand on the belt area of my stomach almost as if he knew what was there and pushed right on the six ounces I was carrying.
My breathing stopped. Maybe my heart stopped. Time stood still. And then, somehow, he moved on. Is it possible he didn’t feel it? I have never been able to know if they just missed it or if they knew I had it but decided just to scare me and not skewer my life. Once this all began, of course, it took no time for my mind to flash a picture of boring Ted, the highway-patrolman writer back in Madrid and his part in this. He had taken an avuncular interest in me. Maybe this was his way of teaching me a lesson and saving me at the same time. Or maybe they just missed it.
They let me go and I walked out to greet my father who was anxiously waiting and wondering what had happened. He had rented a limo for the “birthday surprise” and as we moved toward Manhattan and the Harvard Club, where I was to spend the night, hiding before the party the next day, I sank into the seat and pressed my pale face against the cool glass of the back seat window. My father was so absorbed in his own excitement about bringing me back as a gift to my mother that he didn’t notice the emotional undercurrents swirling around in me.
I was, in fact, the big surprise and happy to make my mother happy. And my friends were glad to see me and get high and evolve from being beatnik wannabees to nascent hippies.
The following summer I received a letter from Sebastiano. He was in New York and I called him, got his address, and was on my way into town, driving the family Mercedes at breakneck speed. In those days I prided myself in how fast I could get anywhere in Manhattan and back out to Pelham and I never had an accident. But now, because of my excitement I let my guard down, something that can be fatal in New York especially in those days. I got to the address at 90th Street and Third Avenue, six blocks south of where Harlem begins, and parked the car and got out all in one motion. As I headed to the intersection to cross, five big tough black guys, all dressed in identical white shirts buttoned to the collar, emerged from the shadows. The biggest one asked me for a match which is often the interaction that precedes your death. Normally, I would have seen them even before I parked. New Yorkers know how and when to cross the street. They practice avoidance for survival. But now I was wide open. As I reached for the match I heard Sebastiano bellow from the window of his apartment on the second floor across the street. He could see what was going on. Hanging out the window and sporting a wife beater tee shirt a la Stanley Kowalski, what he communicated was that if those guys touched me he would literally jump out of the window and kill them. The African-American brothers looked at each other, let me light the leader’s cigarette, and faded back into the shadows.
Sebastiano was living with a dancer – a tall willowy beauty who was also a very nice person and obviously in love with him. It’s amazing the bond created by orgasm. Did I say living with a dancer? He was living off a dancer. Somehow he never was able to get his own talents focused in a way that produced anything more than survival money.
He and his girlfriend and I did a few things together and I managed to get him some work on the soap operas. Later he was living with an African-American woman, another real beauty who was about to become a model in Oleg Cassini’s stable. One night we accompanied her to the famous designer’s house where she had been invited to “audition.” Sebastiano and I paced the streets for a couple of hours until she finally emerged, slightly the worse for wear. I think she passed the audition.
And that was the end of our story, because here in New York our lives were very different. I was still in the protected, if dysfunctional, warm bosom of my family and still a college boy while Sebastiano, as usual, was barely maintaining by living off women who were attracted to his wild personality and to “the brute”!
— Ricker Winsor, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia