The Big Quiet has ended.
Early morning, the smell of baking bread issues, once again, from the bakery run by the Venezuelan couple. Porters sweep the sidewalks in front of buildings, stopping to stare pensively at the swallows swirling overhead.
Construction projects are back up and running. When we moved into the apartment last July, a building down the street was vanishing, piece by jackhammered piece, into a single small dumpster on the street. Someday a new building will replace it, one that’ll attract a new sort of neighbor who only sits on their terrace in acapulco chairs and requires a swimming pool.
Will that sort of neighbor even exist in Spain’s New Normality?
While we wait to find out the answer to that question, demolition work goes on. I’ve been listening to those jackhammers for 10 months now.
Ten months of living in Madrid! Can I count the two spent locked in this apartment because of COVID?
Today while I was out during our exercise slot, I watched a sour-faced older man berate two construction workers. The reason? They were backing a dump truck across a blocked-off sidewalk. He was going to have to detour into the street.
—Coño, he swore, dodging the truck.
—Hijo de puta, one of the workers swore back.
Because he was wearing his mask on his chin, as construction workers tend to, I could tell he had a glimmer of a smile on his face, as if to say Now this, this, is what I call normal! The old man continued on his way, swearing as he went; the construction worker continued yelling curses at his back.
And I swear — they were having fun.
When I was a kid growing up in Athens, GA, then-population 44,000, I vowed that as soon I could, I’d shake its podunk dust from my feet and head for a City with a capital C. Since I was nothing if not ambitious, geographically speaking, nothing but New York was going to do.
Was I the least bit equipped for city life? Of course not. When I was 18, everything I knew about cities, I knew from books. Actually, when I was 18, everything I knew about anything, I knew from books.
My first day in New York, when a convenience store clerk cursed me for paying with a traveler’s check, I cried. I’d taken the Southern Crescent Amtrack to get from Athens to NYC, and had met somebody in the bar car somewhere in Virginia who told me the area around the Sloan House Y, where I’d be staying before classes started at Sarah Lawrence, was dangerous. Thus, I spent a sweltering, un-airconditioned August week in NYC, hiding out inside a dreary room the size of a shoe box.
I was back in Athens within two years. I’d had it all wrong, I concluded, I actually loathed cities. They were dirty, loud, rude, and full of themselves. Give me small towns instead.
Funny how life never turns out the way you had it planned. In the past 25 years, M has managed to cajole me into not one, not two, but three major cities.
Today, I walked past porters, bakers, cursers, dogwalkers, elegantly dressed old ladies, dog shit, garbage, and it hit me. With its community and communion and common spaces, Madrid might be the city I hoped to find half a lifetime ago in New York City. It might be the city Frankfurt never was, for me at least.
Maybe I bathed Madrid in such a rosy glow today because I have no idea, most of the time, what anybody here is actually saying.
Maybe I’ve gained such affection for it because of the strange hardship the past few months have brought.
Maybe it’s because I just spent two months cloistered in the Western world’s strictest quarantine, and grueling things, like boot camp, create loyalty.
Or maybe it’s just Madrid. I didn’t expect to feel this way, and maybe I won’t tomorrow, but today, as the proverb says —
*From Madrid, to Heaven.