C h a p t e r T w o
I'm in Barcelona, sharing a small room with a one-legged American with literary pretensions. Still, even two-legged people need crutches or at least a self-inflated narrative of one sort or another to hold themselves up. I forgive him, which is big of me, I'll admit.
I arrived in my shared room in the middle of the day, leant my stilts against the wall and noticed his artificial leg leaning against the other. He was still asleep, or pretending to be. I knew that feeling, the disappointment of the inevitable roommate.
I quickly left for a short walk and coffee, returning an hour later to find him sitting up and prepared to banter. He confided that when traveling and overhearing an American accent, he cringes, afraid of the potential crassness of his countrymen. I mentioned an American two doors down, who was reading Hemingway (to try to reassure him), but he pooh-poohed both the writer and the reader by implication as lightweight. I told him he was full of insecure, elitist bullshit and he's been face down on his bed ever since.
Barcelona's a tough city. Every day you can find tear-streaked tourists numbly trying to comprehend that they've just been shown a knife and robbed of their wallets, or had their bag stolen from beside them at the Railway station, or, less seriously, been sold hashish that is in fact Junkie Turd.
There's this buxom princess on the Ramblas who approaches unsuspecting marks, grabs their hands and pushes them onto her breasts. While her victim is in momentary shock, she pickpockets him and hands the goods to a guy who passes behind her while she does it. It's a beautiful move, with just the right amount of cruelty, dark humour and venial heartlessness.
To walk the streets with all the money you have in the world sitting in your back pocket can be scary, but (more than for most I suppose) my occupation is a sort of insurance. When a Clown is robbed, as I have been, I have only to go out onto the street, gather a crowd, entertain them briefly, and again have funds to continue my haphazard existence. Obviously harder some days than others. To be more precise I am a Clown on stilts, removed from the ordinary man by a metre. I totter...I dance...I make mischief.
I am, in sort, a professionally unhappy pantomime, which is maybe why I snapped at the one-legged chap's dismissal of Hemingway as lightweight. I ask you—really—as if there is a point. As if intelligence is related to happiness. I don't want to sound cynical—I admit life is pointless, but so is death, and while life may be temporarily pointless, I have a suspicion that death is permanently so. But life contains a range of experience for intelligent and dull alike that you cannot not at least attempt to enjoy. As I write this, I am aware I am a jaded cheerleader on the game's periphery.
I meet my friends (fellow performers) and we wander around feeling like fringe-dwelling rascals. Alone afterwards, the strange barbarism of Barcelona reasserts itself. The old woman absently chewing on a piece of bread as she stands on the footpath, gazing dully through the laundromat window, her urine running down from under her ragged dress and following me like liquid fingers as I walk away from her down the hill. The other woman, who suddenly, violently exclaims as she swivels, swings and with her open palm venomously slaps the wall beside her, transfixed with rage, glaring at the wall at the point of impact. Or the man I wished I hadn't seen, his face deformed yet smooth, one side tear-dropping down his neck, his brown eyes numbed to the startled disgust that springs involuntarily from my first glance. He walked quickly past me and ominous childhood dreams crept back. I was scared for myself.
Proof that life's worth living?
There shortly came a time I lay down in the room with the one-legged American where I had more sympathy, empathy and respect for the legless existence.
I was approached after my streetshow on the Ramblas by a well-dressed Spaniard who asked what I cost for a night's work. This, I realised, was my first European gig. I had worked nightclub and corporate and arts festivals at that point, so quoted X worth of the local currency.
Indifferent to the size of my fee, this gentleman secured my address and told me I'd get picked up the following evening. I was only told it was a nightclub and it was a little out of town. I went home chuffed at this new development, my limb-deficient roomie was still sulking, no words were spoken. A sedan came well before sunset the next evening and took me out to the coast somewhere.
The nightclub was isolated on the waterfront with its own breakwater and jetty for luxury yachts to dock. It was big, many theme rooms, some roofless. It was a major investment, I came to learn, some large corporate hospitality expense tax write-off, and the guy who ran it had been the man who approached me on the Ramblas.
I approached him; he grinned, shook my hand, nodded respectfully, called someone to show me a dressing room and issued my instructions.
'Do what you want.'
This guy was effortlessly cool. A Spanish Fonzie with that European calm self-satisfaction us New-Worlders cannot match.
I looked around. One roofless theme-room in the complex was 12 feet deep in foam with Gaudi-like pillars and ceramic tiling. There was a cozy little house bar, an enormous multi-level main room, tropical rooms, industrially-styled rooms, a casual restaurant area facing the sea.
I got ready and went out and did my thing. I went long, why not? I like my elevated position. I roamed and danced and played and hid and ridiculed. There was a lot of ground to cover. I worked three hours, then dismounted, cleaned up and went to visit the boss in the house bar to get paid and secure my ride home.
The advantage in dealing with advanced coolness is that it challenges you to expand your own cool. The boss thanked me for a job well done, ordered me a drink and pulled out a billfold. I thanked him for the opportunity to work in such a stunning venue. He replied with a little history of the place and just as he did so he put my fee down on the bar between us. I did not take my eyes off his, staying attentive to him, undistracted by my fee between us. It seemed like the coolest thing to do, and basically polite.
He paused, smiled at me, another fluid movement and his billfold again was in his hand, he made some general complimentary remark and while doing so, doubled my fee. I smiled and looked away. We were playing. It was a great game.
He handed me a roll of drink tickets—not two or three, not five or ten, a roll of about 60 drink tickets—and suggested I go enjoy myself and get back to him around dawn to arrange my lift home. That I did.
Personally, I enjoy multifaceted venues, because I can spend my recreational time observing. It doesn't look out of place that you are isolated when you move purposefully, so I ambled from room to room. I knew nobody, and as long as that continued I could pretend to be a thin, preoccupied Spaniard.
I tend to react more manically and physically the more I drink. I presume it's something to do with the seduction of risk-taking behaviours.
I had a pass that enabled me to go anywhere. I passed guards who glanced at me indifferently and went out onto the breakwater to play. Great, three-pronged concrete shapes were piled deep in a line out into the bay. I bounded from prong to prong and clambered around happily. I pondered some time staring out to sea. I had a pocket full of money and as first European gigs went, I considered this a gift. I was drunk.
On the way back in, I mis-stepped and rolled my ankle with my full weight. A white flash of pain followed by nausea and an ominous throb. I stayed where I was for a good 30 minutes—I should have gotten ice on it sooner. I hobbled in, went back to my dressing room and convinced myself it wasn't broken. I was going to have to rest it for days until the swelling reduced and the bruising subsided enough for me to wear stilts again.
Eventually I got a ride back, embarrassed frankly at my inebriation, downplaying the injury, hard to do when you cannot use a leg but easier if you happen to be seated in a car. I assured my designated driver I was fine being dropped off a couple of blocks from my hotel at the nearest main road as he had suggested. I pushed my stuff out, thanked him and he pulled away.
The sun was out but not yet fiercely hot. I was exhausted, throbbing, hungover, but strangely cheerful. I slung my bag over one shoulder, my stilts over the other and commenced hopping.
Laden hopping is not easy. I rested frequently, leaning my stilts against a wall and watching the curious glances from the early Sunday morning passers-by. I took it about thirty yards at a time. It took close to an hour.
The hotel was quiet. I stood panting at the base of six flights of stairs. I needed a shower but I needed to be horizontal more. Those six flights cut deep into my reserve tank of stamina.
I got to my shared room. The one legged gent was sleeping, his crutches and artificial leg propped up against the wall next to his bed. I propped my stilts up similarly and fell into bed.
I stayed in that room the better part of 4 days, going out for nearby food once a day. My one-legged roommate had no pity. I'd showed him none and my condition was temporary. I admired his nonchalant use of his fake appendage, if not his personality. He checked out after three days.
It was five days until I could work again, realising how precarious a physically-skilled occupation can be when coupled with recklessness. At the time that was merely an observation. I'm still unsure whether I've really learnt that lesson.
From my Book 'Panto Damascus--One Clown's Alphabet'