Just a regular Friday night in the barrio. The Ponce and I traipsed down my street toward the plaza to have a quiet drink with Glauco, an Italian friend of his whose wife and kid were away for the weekend. Glauco is a plumber, mellow, with a kind, myopic face like a stoned Marmot. In true Lavapies Swapshop style, last year he fixed my exploded boiler in exchange for a tray of Mama Ponce’s home-cooked pizza and a good pasta dinner, because, as usual I had no cash and was unable to pay him. The boiler, fitted into the floor to ceiling cupboard next to my front door, had burst while I was away and had he not emptied it for me it would have continued to gush fusty water down the walls, over my coats in the coat cupboard next to it and, a cunning design ‘piece de resistance’: over the fusebox which is directly underneath, possibly short-circuiting the entire flat.
There were no outside tables free at any of the terrazas: Summer is upon us and so are the night-trippers, swarming over the café tables like locusts, leaving no room for the locals. Still, they are more than welcome and you can only agree with them- Lavapies is a damn cool place to hang out, and we get to do it every night of the week, not just at the weekends. There was the added ‘attraction’ of the ‘Fiesta del Barrio’ (Neighbourhood Fair). The Ponce and I had wandered down there a couple of nights ago into a fug of stinky pork fat smoke, ambling past the stalls where Samba and Salsa blared, and rotund, lazy-eyed bargirls served sub-standard Caipirinhas. One or two of them had faces as hard as glass and make up painted ‘as thick as a church door’.
‘Do you think she’s doing a shift later on Calle Montera?’ muttered the Ponce, with a wicked smirk, as we were handed our Caipirinhas. Calle Montera is the dodgy thoroughfare running from Puerta del Sol up to Gran Via, which was supposed to be modelled on Broadway but which Prodigal described as ‘the sleaziest street in the whole of Madrid.’ On Montera you can see door to door prostitutes, cheap and desperate in their tranny stilettos and hotpants. At the top, near Gran Via there is one particular lady built like an outside convenience with a fascinatingly tragic face as square and sturdy as a battered old leather suitcase who normally perches on a motorbike nursing her huge and half-exposed breasts. We took a bench seat by one of the trestle tables to watch all the fun of the fair.
I caught sight of the Kurdish poster boy, wearing an acid green shirt that was painful to behold, even on his sturdy physique, and sporting what looked like cuban heels- certainly pointy boots of some sort. I find these immigrant men exotic and beautiful, like brightly coloured, preening parakeets, though I would die of embarrassment if someone were to see me out on the arm of one of them. He sauntered past with his friends, his thick, sleek pony tail hanging down his back like a real horse’s tail. Such glossy hair! No-one in the UK has a pony tail any more, except my brother in the sporadic intervals between shaving it all off and having a grade two, and he can get away with it, and Peter Stringfellow, who cannot. There was a little pug-nosed South American girl who trailed behind her parents, devouring a massive blob of candy floss bigger than her own torso. She had a round, moon-pig face and bunches sticking out on either side of her head: a comical, roly-poly child dressed in unflattering but obligatory bubble gum pink, matching her fluffy snack. The Ponce nudged me as she waddled past, and quipped,
‘Thanks Mum and Dad, she needs that like a hole in the head.’ and I laughed and replied,
‘Stop it! You’re so cruel…’ feeling ashamed because I had thought it first. Then I said,
‘She looks like a cochinillo!’ (suckling piglet) because she did: plump, tender, shiny and brown all over.
‘And I’m the cruel one?!’
I would feel guilty if it weren’t for the fact that we are both ex fat kids.
Later we wandered back past the ubiquitous local fair stalls which must be the same all over the world- tinny music, shifty owners, rifle ranges and dart boards, grossly cheap and nasty soft toys.
‘A Stewie doll! I want one, I want one!’ exclaimed the Ponce, his eyes shining like a 5 year old’s with sudden, intense glee. I reacted like a spoilsport parent,
‘Don’t be silly. It’s 6 euros you haven’t got and you probably won’t win one anyway. Come on…’
The smoky, pork fat stink that had been lingering over the barrio for the past few days like nuclear fall-out came from huge vats of traditional entresijos, weird twisted fatty lumps which of course, on closer inspection turned out to be battered, fried pork gizzards. They looked and smelled like something I’d think twice about giving to my dog if I had one. I don’t think even Grace would have eaten them.
The fiesta was still on this Friday night, though the Ponce and I had decided to forego another visit and had arranged to meet Glauco in the Chapateria just down the street from my house near the plaza. He was propping up the bar already when we arrived as there were no tables free outside, but we waited at the bar for one to empty for us, sipping beers and chatting.
Suddenly I kicked the Ponce, who was sitting nearest the open door, and indicated that he should take a look outside… now. I have seen some sights in Lavapies but this left even me speechless. All I could do for a second was look, bug-eyed, and nod in the general direction of what I was observing. There was a man with a shaved head, early to mid thirties, quite attractive, handing out flyers and wearing nothing but a pair of flip flops. The Ponce leapt from his stool like a Jack in the Box and returned a moment later with one of the flyers.
‘Don’t you just love this barrio?’ I said to Glauco, who was grinning over the top of his beer.
‘Better than mine, that’s for sure.’
‘Where do you live, then?’
‘Moncloa. Nice, but dull.’ He lent forward on his stool,
‘So what’s all this about?’
The Ponce was hunched over the flyer, smoking intently, smiling to himself.
‘Take a look, mate.’ he said, handing over the paper. ‘Classic. Another naked protest.’
There seems to be a tradition of naked protest here in Spain: call it a lack of puritanical prudery, a better climate, therefore more clement conditions for stripping off, or a sure-fire way to draw attention and ruffle the feathers of your Catholic elders. Since I have lived here I have witnessed quite a few, some of them on television, and once, spectacularly, live- very much alive and flapping in the breeze. A few years ago I remember a group of young people in Pamplona protesting against the cruelty of the running of the bulls, by staging their own eye-catching streaking of the students along the very same route. A herd of young naked activists sprang lithely across the background while in the foreground the eager reporter interviewed an outraged old lady (however did he manage to find one of those?)
‘I think it’s disgusting,’ she declared, unsurprisingly, ‘absolutely disgusting taking their clothes off like that,’ as firm breasts bounced, cheeky buttocks scissored, thighs pumped and gonads jiggled past just behind her, bearing a banner that announced ‘put yourself in the skin of the bulls.’
Not so long ago in Madrid another group of young activists held a successful demonstration in Puerta del Sol against cruelty to animals; it may have been factory farming, vivisection or bull-fighting they were highlighting, by climbing nude into rows of cages in the middle of the plaza, smearing themselves with fake blood and curling up into foetal positions. They certainly caused a stir and attracted media attention though I do recall during the news report spying various pairs of flesh-coloured knickers, which is a bit of a cheat if you ask me.
But my favourite example was the Critical Mass demonstration I was lucky enough to witness one late afternoon a couple of years after moving to Madrid. I had arranged to meet a private student to give her a class in a quiet café at the bottom of Gran Via, right next to Plaza España. As I walked round the corner from the metro stop to the café entrance my path was criss-crossed by a small shoal of Japanese tourists darting this way and that excitedly, pointing and urgently fumbling to remove the lens caps on their cameras. I stopped and looked to see what all the fuss was about, and as I did so approximately 300 nude cyclists pedalled past, making the eyes water at the immediate and obvious questions about saddle rash. They rang their bells, they grinned, they waved, they streamed past a bemused traffic policeman too surprised to even start blowing his disco whistle. One protester staged a slow motion ‘car crash’, tumbling carefully onto the tarmac as if run over, with his bicycle on top of him, clutching a limb dramatically and crying out,
‘Ow, ow, I’ve been hurt! I’ve been knocked off my bike by a car, the driver wasn’t looking out for me! Ow…’ Then I made the connection and realised it was a Critical Mass pro-cycling demonstration rather than merely 300 people cycling around town in the buff for no other reason than our entertainment.
So, was I about to see a herd of naked protesters thunder past the café? Sadly, no, but the flyer certainly raised an eyebrow.
‘I don’t think I’d be walking around quite so cocky if mine was only that size.’ commented one of the barmaids to the other, and they laughed as Glauco and I peered at the flyer, which announced,
Underneath the heading it advocated Sexo Publico (Sex in public) Poliamor (free love), Pansexualidad (Pansexuality) and Experimentacion sexual y afectiva (Sexual and emotional experimentation).
We glanced through the leaflet and I shoved it into my pocket for later, after suggesting to the Ponce that we go on one of the activities planned for Summer 2010, for example, Sexo Solar- Pornosenderismo-Eco-orgias (Outdoor sex, Porno-hiking and ‘green’ orgies).
‘You have got to be joking. You are taking the piss, right?’ he replied, as we slipped outside to grab a table which had emptied.
‘Yeah, actually I was. Though the porno-hiking… oh hang on, look, here he is… and a friend….’
Opposite us, just a few feet away across the small stretch of pavement was the brave individual himself, sitting at an outside table in a typical nudist pose (why they always have to sit like this I don’t know): thighs wide open, one leg raised at the knee and resting on the lip of his chair. He was having a cool beer and talking to a young man seated opposite him who was clothed. And with her back to us, also at the table was his companion or fellow protester: a mountainous woman, also totally naked, with a tattoo across her vast shoulders. She spilled over the top of the cane seat, and we were gifted with a great view of arse crack in the gap between the back of the seat and the frame. My first thought on seeing her was ‘Good for you.’
For the next hour we nursed our beers in the stifling heat and watched the passers by coming to and from the Fiesta del barrio. Who needs television when you have Lavapies? I was seated with a perfect view of people sauntering up from the plaza, and was able to catch their incredulous faces as they caught sight of and registered the two naked protesters sitting casually chatting and drinking. I cringed as I watched two muslim women in headscarves and shapeless clothes, possibly a mother and daughter strolling up arm in arm, but they didn’t even notice the ‘abomination’ at their side. Two old men poked each other in the ribs and muttered as they passed, after second, third and fourth glances. Urban hippies turned their noses up or laughed, or rolled their eyes. Women in saris pulled the bright fabric around their faces and looked away. One young muslim couple walked past, the husband indicating that they should follow him quickly, the little boy dragging at his mother’s hand, looking with eyes like saucers, while she refused to turn her eyes in that direction and pulled him down the street. Only one young couple stopped, walked up to them and asked,
‘So, what are you guys protesting about, then?’ Otherwise in general they were ignored or tolerated.
Eventually, after an hour or so, having made their point, they paid and got up to leave. The woman was even more impressive on her feet: hugely tall and with ripples of flesh cascading from her shoulders. From a group of young people who had been drinking at a corner table, a man in his twenties leapt up as they moved and hurried over to them, asking,
‘Hey, do you mind if I take a photo with you two? I’m from Uruguay.’ They seemed happy for him to do so, and in a surreal moment he also pulled his clothing off and his friends at the table, giggling and cheering, took a few photographs of the three of them with their arms round each other. They stood in a line the middle of the pavement, posing as any holiday threesome might do, except none of them had any clothes on, while by now, frankly horrified or amused passers by had no choice but to notice them. As the Uruguayo pulled his clothes back on and gave them the thumbs-up, the Ponce leant over and pointed out to them,
‘Watch it guys, the police are on the way.’
They nodded their thanks and walked slowly up the hill, as six, yes that’s right, six beefy policemen were spotted walking up from the plaza to tackle them. A little way up from my house they caught up with the nudists, surrounded them, and engaged them in a conversation which went on for at least fifteen minutes. During this time the Ponce, who is not a great fan of the police, muttered,
‘I bet they’ve called the black maria. They have, you know, look, they’re waiting for it to arrive. They’ve arrested them, you just wait and see…’
We watched and we waited. A few minutes later he began to shift in his seat, his ‘up the revolution’ tendencies clearly boiling to the surface.
‘We should all get up and strip off, see them deal with that!’ he declared, ‘The whole street, all of us, we should all get naked and go and join them. Give them a bit of support. Shall we do it? Shall we… go on….’
Glauco just laughed but I must admit, for a few seconds, I was tempted. The sense of righteous liberation must be exhilarating. But then I thought of myself the following morning crossing the street to the local bakers, of the next time I ordered a kebab from the Kurdish poster boy and his many brothers, of the next time I had to nip over to the chinese corner shop when I’d forgotten to buy milk, of my occasional Lebanese lover who had emerged from the tea shop a while ago and was leaning against the wall grinning and watching the show a little way up the street.
‘No….. call me old fashioned….’
If the naked protesters had hoped to cause a stir in the barrio they had certainly succeeded. As the Ponce and I went back into the airless bar to pay for our drinks at the counter there appeared to be a discussion taking place and some confusion over the contents and meaning of the flyer. A small, wiry black man, about fifty, grinned at us and at the barmaid as she took our money and asked no-one in particular,
‘But I don’t understand what they mean by Pansexuality.’
The English teacher in me spoke up,
‘I suppose it must mean all-encompassing, including everything. Total. Er, like pandemic, pandemonium-‘
‘Well, I think that’s vile.’ she replied, giving us our change. ‘Children and animals, that’s disgusting.’
‘Where does it say that, then?’ I scanned the flyer on the bar between us, pulling out the phrase,
‘informed and consensual on behalf of all parties… Don’t think there can be many animals or kids who are informed and consensual. I don’t think they mean that. They mean, you know, hetero, gay, bi, transsexual, all that stuff.’
She still had her nose in the air as if the nudists had left a smell that was somehow morally offensive, which shocked me a little. Is it just that I come from another century- from a time way back when eighties dinosaurs roamed the earth wearing eye-liner and lip gloss, the girls power-dressed in pin-striped suits, and androgyny and sexual experimentation and expression were in? Are we going backwards? But then, we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto…
‘I like the way some prude called the cops on them,’ huffed the Ponce, ‘like when that little old lady got mugged and knocked over in the square and it took them forty five minutes to turn up. But 2 naked people?…’
‘Oh, they’ve been there about an hour though.’ the barmaid informed us. ‘And I’ll tell you another thing, if it was black man they’d turn up in two minutes flat.’ Our companion at the bar laughed and said,
‘Yeah, man, we can be a bit naughty but we’re not responsable for everything!’
‘I tell you what,’ I suggested, ‘why don’t we do a little experiment? Why don’t you get your kit off and see how long it takes them to arrest you?’
‘Ha ha! Oh, it’s not for me, not all that, I’m not into it. But at least they’re stirring up a bit of polemica (controversy).’
By now roughly half the bar had tuned into our conversation and their ears pricked up a little sharper as he ran one finger over the flyer and asked us,
‘But there’s another bit I don’t understand. What’s BDSM then? What’s all that about?’ His eyes widened in wonder and slow comprehension as the Ponce and I spelled it out for him.
‘All that S and M stuff, you know, I think it stands for Bondage, Domination, Submission and Masochism. You know, anything kinky.’
‘S and M, right? Sado-Masochism…’
Faces in the bar turned to us like sunflowers following the sun. The man recoiled and declared,
‘Ah no, you’re joking, that’s gross!’ The barmaid apparently agreed, as she pulled an icky face while wiping down the counter top. The Ponce and I exchanged glances.
‘Gross?! Don’t be ridiculous, it’s marvelous, it’s the coolest thing, I love it. People should be allowed to do exactly what they like in bed, long as they’re not hurting anyone… unless they want to be hurt.’
‘Absolutely,’ I chipped in, becoming a touch fed up with this 21st Century squeamishness.
‘Get over it, don’t knock what you haven’t tried. Whatever gets your rocks off. What’s wrong with handcuffs, whips, role playing and er…. you know…?’ I felt as though the clientelle in the bar were leaning in on us now, their noses almost dipping into our beers in their efforts to get close enough to eavesdrop. So here I was, too shy to strip off outside my front door in the street, yet in the metaphorical equivalent of my bra and knickers in the local bar two doors down from my house justifying my sexual depravity to a prudish public.
‘Come on, let’s go, they’ll be wanting a demonstration next.’ I pulled at the Ponce’s arm, grinning with discomfort, and we left, remonstrating with the barmaid and barfly as we left,
‘Try not to be so judgmental, guys!’
‘Remember, variety is the spice of life-‘
Our wiry little black friend was correct, at least the Cuerpo Libre protesters had stirred up some controversy and tonight the barrio would have something different and, in my opinion, relevant, to talk about. Had I been wearing a hat I would have taken it off to them. Especially to her, as it is an immense act of bravery in this day and age to remove your clothes in public when you don’t have the airbrushed body of a fourteen year old, and to say – this is a body, this is what a real body looks like. Laugh if you like at my cellulite and stretch marks, but this is a body and it’s mine. As we walked down to the square and past Carrefour I noticed one of the billboards next to a bus stop with a laminated image in it, a perfume ad, showing a young beautiful woman (airbrushed) wearing nothing but nude tone lingerie, stockings and a string of pearls. Nobody noticed her, nobody commented on her virtual public nudity, because she is permitted and expected and someone paid money for her to be there.
A few days later I pulled out the flyer and had a closer look at it, and softened a little toward the prudish barmaid, when I read the sentence, in the middle of an explanation of pansexuality, ‘…in which a poylamorous group could be made up of members of all sexes or no specific sex, of other species and non organic bodies.’
What? Now I’m confused! Other species? And I was just sticking up for you, please don’t tell me you’re of the Here Rover, that’s a good boy persuasion. No specific sex? Huh? I looked them up on the website and also found as part of their manifesto,
‘To denounce the reductionist character of genital reproductive sexuality and to propose new forms of human and post human emotional and sexual experimentation, redistributing sex and emotions via all types of forms (human and non human anatomies) also movements (amorphous, without anatomy).
Looking at their website I was amused to find a photo of the leader/guru himself, marching proudly through the woods on some porno-hike, sporting an angry red hard on, I was fascinated to discover that Spain is the only country in Europe, and possibly the world, where public nudity is entirely legal, as is public sex as long as there are no minors or ‘mentally disabled’ present, and delighted to read that further naked meetings and protests are planned for Madrid, and specifically, for Lavapies. Perhaps the naked protesters are to become a fixture in my barrio. There was a short list of Pro-nudist and Nudophile bars and premises posted, and the Chapateria was listed under pro-nudist. Best of all, I read that there is a Public Sex Action Group who are apparently a guerilla faction prone to carry out commando urban interventions of public sex, and even a Pimp/Hustler Pride march planned for sex workers. Madrid looks to be getting a whole lot more interesting in the near future….