Ah, youth

Another tale from the annals of my splendidly misspent youth.  As usual, I have changed the names, out of a rather quaint sense of propriety.

Well, there we were, the lot of us squeezed comfortably into the crevices of a small, 5th floor pension a block from Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona.  What did we expect?  When you’re young, love blooms early and often, or at least what passes for love, some combination of lust and infatuation, I suppose.  Mother Nature gives us a double shot of hormones to get us making more of ourselves before we get distracted by life’s illusions.  For ordinary mammals, this is pretty straightforward; for us humans, anything but.

The Pension Fontanella was, above all, cheap, and the landlord easy going.  For 50 peseatas a day, about 75 cents in the exchange rate of the day, you got a bed in one of a half dozen or so rooms with anywhere from two to six beds each. In the morning was an included breakfast, of endless coffee, scones and butter, sometimes jam.  For another 30 pesetas, you could go down the street a ways to the worker’s cafeteria and get an enormous midday meal consisting, typically, of a giant bowl of paella, a grilled meat and potatoes course, and flan for dessert, all washed down with a Coca Cola bottle filled with cheap Spanish wine.  We thought Europe on $5 a Day, a popular guide book at the time, was woefully extravagant.

I won’t say the Pension Fontanella was a den of iniquity.  It was 1970.  The world was in one of its usual celebrations of youthful exuberance to accompany the coming of age of a postwar cohort, and the horrors of AIDS were nowhere on the horizon.  There were drugs, yes.  The landlord doubtless shared a portion of his profits with the local Guardia Civil.  It was 1970.  Mostly hashish, taken with a kind of connoisseurship: Moroccan blond, versus Lebanese red, etc.  Personally, while I had indulged lavishly while in military service, I had lost interest since my discharge.  I had come to find that while the first half hour or so of getting high was pleasant enough, after that I would often want to do something, and the hash haze became an obstacle.  Take whatever that says about the military as you wish; it was a different institution back in the days of Vietnam and the draft.

Anyway, as I said, there we were, merrily hopping from hash to hash and bed to bed, all bedazzled by the sheer possibility of life, blissfully ignorant of folly and its curses.  We played music; I imagined myself to be a competent guitarist and passable singer, mostly because of my friend Sid, who was so brilliant that when we played together, it made my amateurish thrashing about sound like intentional rustication.

Then, in walked Inga, and set it all a-tumble.

She wasn’t exactly beautiful, though her features were regular enough.  But, musically, she was head and shoulders above the quotidian, workmanlike talent we were used to.  It was the way she sang, with her eyes, gliding atop the effortless guitar lines with a sublime inevitability.  She made the trite seem fresh, and the fresh seem stunning; most of all, she made it seem personal to every male listening.  I was smitten.  So were we all.

She had arrived in the afternoon from nowhere in particular, and half the denizens of the pension sat far into the night under the spell of her singing and playing.  I fell asleep with the resolve that, in the morning, I would find her, and away from the rest of her admiring audience, I would have a chance at connecting.

Well, morning did come, and I found her, but not alone.  There she was at the reception desk, guitar and backpack all cinched up and ready to go.  Next to her was Billy, whom I had come to consider a good friend.  They were checking out.  Together.

Blap!  Just like that.  I lost my moorings.  I stammered a “good morning,” and asked, “What’s going on?  Are you leaving?”

“Yeah, Billy said, smiling broadly.  “We’re heading for Ibiza; the boat leaves in an hour.”  Inga beamed radiantly.  I was crushed.

“I gotta go,” I said lamely,  I could feel their quizzical stares as I headed for the staircase and out the door.

Well, it’s an old story, I guess, ruefully celebrated in many a folksong:

For courting too slowly you have lost this fair maiden
Begone you will never enjoy her
Begone you will never enjoy her
I once loved a lass

I walked down the street to a pub we occasionally patronized for special occasions.  It’s bar, lined with tapas the length of it, was a major attraction that outweighed the price of the beer.  Inside, I found Will, Sid’s brother.  He looked up and saw my face.

“You too?” he said.

I nodded and let out a sigh, and sat down next to him.  It was beer and calamares for a long, long brunch for us.  Not quite equivalent to true love, but it would have to do.

An alien life

Call him Rick.  He carried a large knife and claimed to be able to see through boulders.  His body was covered with scars and tattoos in a day when such art was usually reserved for drunken sailors.  If you told him someone had “shredded” a guitar, he would have smiled quizzically at the image of strings and splinters strewn across the landscape.

We met on a boat from Barcelona to Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  I had been staying in a fifth floor walk up pension around the corner from the Plaza de Cataluña, up the Rambla from the windy industrial port.  In those days Barcelona was leading a dangerous double life as a haven for hippies and a provincial capital and headquarters for the Guardia Civil.  It had been the last city to fall in the civil war, and bore the scars, both physical and social, to show for it.  The war had also begun there, in typical Spanish fashion, with neither side wanting to be the first to fire upon fellow Spaniards.  The Guardia somehow brought themselves to do it, and three years of hellish romanticism ensued.

This was years before the Great Dictator Die-Off between Franco and Marshal Tito, but the Generalissimo was getting on in years, and things were stirring.  The Guardia were not amused.  I had myself witnessed what can only be considered an early flash mob:  On the busy shopping street below, several young men began running with unfurled banners and shouting “Libertad!”  In seconds, the street was empty.  Utterly.  By the time the police had arrived and sealed off either end of the street, it looked like no one had ever been there.  The overall effect of this seemed to have been to make the already ill-humored Guardia Civil even touchier.  An acquaintance made a disparaging remark about their characteristic (and, let’s face it, ridiculous) hats, stupidly, within earshot.  He was taken into custody and not seen again.  Rumors were circulating that a crackdown on undesirables was imminent.  Then, I happened past a ticket agency, where I saw that passage to Tenerife could be had for the equivalent of about $25 US.  A one week passage on a cargo vessel, all meals included, ending up in the Canary Islands.  That was cheaper than staying put!

The first full day aboard, I learned, among other things, that turning “green” with sea-sickness was not metaphorical.  I’m still trying to figure out the biological logistics of raising that color on a normally reddish caucasian face.  That day I spent shuttling between the rack and the head; by morning, though, I was inexplicably much better, and ravenous to boot, and made my way to the dining room for breakfast.  I found myself sitting next to a wild-mannered, thoroughly engaging presence of a man of indiscriminate age.

He had a full beard and hair that looked as if it had been chewed off rather than cut, skin the color and texture of fine undyed leather, and a few scattered tattoos.  One of them consisted of a much scarred logo with the words “Barons” and “Earth” above and below.  He wore an old but well washed t-shirt of undefinable color, ancient jeans and a coarse belt upon which hung a sheathed hunting knife.  A waiter arrived with bread, and my companion drew his knife and stuck it into the wooden table, turned to face me and said, “Rick.”

In precisely the same way as one reflexively bows in response to a newly introduced Japanese person, I pulled out my own knife, stuck it next to his, and said, “Mike.”  Rick nodded, and we ate breakfast.  That no one on the ship’s crew seemed to find this odd boded well, I thought, for the journey.

I still have that knife, it’s edge still chipped where Rick and I settled an argument about whose knife was made of the harder steel.  I have rarely met a man of such imminent power who nevertheless had the charisma to evoke trust rather than fear.  I have no doubt that he was capable of brutal violence, but there always seemed clear parameters bounding that capability, and he seemed an excellent judge of exactly where those parameters were with regard to any situation.

Once, another passenger, a young, undisciplined toff of a lad had been caught stealing.  The crew had cornered him on the deck, and he had pulled a knife to fend them off.  At a certain point, Rick tired of the melodrama, and simply went up and took the knife away, shaking his head at the amateurism of it all.

As near as I could ascertain, he was originally in Europe on some dubious enterprise which fell through.  He had shrugged it off, and embarked on a purposely undefinable quest for fortune and sustenance. I imagined men and women like him piercing the uncharted wilderness down through the mangled trails of history.  We no doubt owe their kind much that is both joyous and horrific in our culture.

We parted ways somewhere near a goat cave we were using for shelter on Tenerife.  I like to think he still plies the waves of fate, somewhere in that great trackless frontier that is his personal adventure.  But I have a feeling he died long ago, blown away like the great gust of wind that was his life.

Me, in those gloriously sullen days

Me, in those gloriously sullen days