BY THE WAYSIDE by Jeff Putnam
[Chapter Three, Chapter Four. Published in 1992; cut and commented upon by the author in 2016]
I'd just left the hospital when a thunderstorm was bouncing water off the street and I ducked into one of those little bars that has FRANKFURT on the awning. What better way to celebrate? Bratwurst and German-style beer...
For someone who'd lived in Spain for so long, my Spanish was rotten. I did the buying for us, yes, and I understood all the numbers and price-words as well as any Spaniard, but I still had to point at a lot of the things I wanted or sculpt them in the air.
Here in the bratwurst bar before I had my first beer down I'd told everybody that I'd become a father today in brazen bad Spanish and the bartender set up the next one on the house and the guy sitting next to me the one after.
To judge from the number of children on the Barcelona streets it was surprising that Spaniards would make such a fuss over another one. But when the new arrival in question belonged to a tourist, to someone who couldn't speak their language...?
Trying to assign a motive was hopeless. Being this close to the Maternidad the jolly bartender must have had men just become fathers popping in every day, and what's more important, men whose reason for being in this neighborhood had just ended. He'd have been an idiot to give away drinks on the basis of paternity, and he couldn't have been an idiot—this bar was well-stocked, -maintained, -patronized.
To make a long evening short, I got shit-face drunk, and spent so little I had enough for a cab when I emerged. The rain had stopped, so even if a cab didn't come right away, it was a beautiful night to be standing on the street full of the drinks good people had sported me, thinking of Nena tucked away in her nursery and France in slumber not so very far away where I'd be able to express myself again.
All the lights were out on our street in Sarriá, but it wasn't that late. My head had cleared on the ride home and instead of wishing for a soft place to lay it I was ready to celebrate some more. Being dry again wasn't the reason, there was plenty of good sherry upstairs. I needed to unbosom the gratitude and joy that was still welling up inside.
I'd heard of private clubs where one could drink all night. The cab driver knew where there was a good one. I had him wait outside our place while upstairs I shaved and put on the safari jacket Lena had bought me "for shopping." I'd vowed never to wear it unless I were stalking game, but it had pockets with snug buttons where some of my France money would be safe...Safer than it was in the hiding place.
The cab driver turned out to be mistaken about the all-night bar. I'd used the words fiesta, felíz and others gleaned from packaging and Christmas cards to describe what I was looking for. What I found was a kind of drug-dream atmosphere. Actually, the layout was interesting and would have been fortunate if anyone had wanted to talk—lots of levels and comfortable places to plop down. Yet no one was talking. Everyone was listening to hyper-repetitive modern music and seemed to be dealing with an inner torment that had all the earmarks of withdrawal. Yes, but not from alcohol or there would have been more drinking going on. This must have been where rich junkies came to nod.
I stayed at the bar and threw down a few quick zombies. I kept scanning the large irregular room to see if anyone was coming out of it. Drunk as I was I knew enough not to mention newborn children in a crowd like this.
The bartenders might have been giving me dirty looks. No doubt my wellbeing was out of place, but I'd been watching a clock all day and had lost interest in what it had to say.
Everything was getting hazy, but that didn't keep me from reading a lot into it. This was my big night out on the town, my blowout...and breakfast couldn't come soon enough.
This time my cabdriver spoke English, but I'd have been better off if he hadn't. In chatting with him I mentioned that I planned to leave for France soon to look for work singing opera. He must have known that I didn't know Barcelona because he dropped me at the Opera Bar well down the Ramblas. There I was having café con leche in what I later learned was one of the principal meeting places of Barcelona vicelords and thieves.
When I came to, a woman was leaning over my table kissing me, her hands on both sides of my head. Instinctively I felt for the upper left pocket of the safari jacket. Unbuttoned, empty. Then I felt the upper right, the lower left, the lower right and the secret pockets. Buttoned and empty, all. I started on the pants pockets.
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"I nodded off…" She was squinting at me, amazed that I was taking everything so well.
She ought to have known something I wasn't going to tell her. People who've never had any money take large losses better than millionaires take small ones.
As to what I should have known: if she had seen what had happened she knew that a large sum had been involved and wasn't troubling herself to help me recover it. If my analysis of the situation was even close, I didn't want her on my side...
For long. She'd been kissing me and she was beautiful and I wanted to know if she were interested in me for anything but more of what had been taken from my pocket. Also, if she were from Iowa, as she seemed to be, and worked in the Barcelona underground, my all-night blowout would have led to something interesting. If she wanted me to be on her side I might not have wasted my thousand after all.
We went to another place and had a bite together and it turned out that she was a tourist from Illinois, and had been trying to console me. She'd been as innocent as I to have gone to the Opera Bar in the madrugada. She too had thought the people looked sinister. She too had been up all night drinking. Yet she'd seen so many sinister-looking Spaniards by now who had turned out to be nice...
"I'm afraid it's my fault you got robbed. I knew you were pretty far gone when I sat with you, but so was I. It happened while I was in the restroom. I didn't get a good look at the people who ran out because they were in silhouette."
[The above account is a fairly exact rendering of what happened during one of the worst routs of my life. It still amazes me that I continued to abuse alcohol for decades afterward and made life difficult for so many good people. I have a fair memory of the young woman who was kissing me at the Opera Bar when I came to, but because the tricks of memory have always been especially perverse in my case, I remember her clean white Reeboks better than anything else about the entire evening. God help me.]