Lavapiés, ca. 1980
“Lavapiés, foot-wash... wash-feet,” mused Roland. He figured it must have to do with some ancient Catholic ritual. Didn’t they have one day during the year when everybody washed their feet?
Lavapiés was a large, sloping plaza, bordered at the top by a loopy grin of a cobblestone thoroughfare, diagonally intersected by another, straighter cobblestone artery, both leading to the bottom of the grade, creating an uneven hourglass.
Roland imagined where there might once have been a cistern for the actual washing of feet. He pegged it for where the low, whitewashed, stone building now stood, where they dried and shredded the tobacco that was then rolled into “Payasos,” the harsh Spanish cigarettes that came in the ridiculous blood-red packet with a cartoon drawing of a clown holding a toy balloon.
The sagging, disenchanted buildings surrounding Lavapiés had stood guard for centuries, over plagues, poverty, and Revolution-era street fighting. It was still a rough neighborhood, earthy and poor.
On Sundays, after church, the arteries and the rest of the plaza were lined with hundreds of canopied tables for el rastro, Madrid’s flea market. Thousands of people clogged the plaza, throbbing past the tables, picking through piles of old clothes, books, kitchenware, clocks, lamps, stamp collections, military ribbons, religious statues, hand tools, vinyl records, bootlegged American cigarettes, anything that a person might buy.
At 4pm, the crowd spilled into the many bars and cafeterias, which lined the streets nearby, laughing and talking boisterously, cheering televised futbol matches, smoking, and drinking wine and beer. They also ordered plate after plate of gambas, grilled, whole prawns, coated with coarse salt. Families and friends ritually tear off the prawns’ heads, peel off the shells and tails, gulp down the flesh, and repeat this process until nightfall, when most of the patrons return to their homes, leaving behind ankle-deep piles of orange-pink carcasses and hundreds of thousands of crustacean heads bearing twice as many gloss black, stunned eyes.
Roland was alone, standing at the bar. The only other customers were two young lovers at a table in the corner, holding hands, their knees touching, their feet swallowed up in pink, translucent, pungent petals.
“Lavapiés,” Roland thought. “Wash your feet.”
He swirled the remainder of what he decided would be his last glass of beer at this locale. Even near the bottom, the beer stayed cold and lively. He looked at his own feet and at the hundreds of beadlike eyes gaping up at him. He tried to think of a philosophical metaphor for the heads and bodies crushed under his shoes, and he laughed out loud when he could not. He drained his beer and said, “Buenas noches, muchachos,” to the bartender and the oblivious couple.
He started his trudge up the cobblestones to a windowless bar that he knew, where they played flamenco music on the phonograph and the waiter would speak to him in a very entertaining version of English. There, he could sit down and have a civilized glass of whiskey.
From somewhere off the side of the plaza, shielded by darkness, a woman shrieked, “¡Puta morro!” followed by the unmistakable sound of a bottle shattering.
“Yes,” thought Roland, “A civilized glass of whiskey.”