So many books, so little time… (Part 3)

Started off the New Year with a nasty cold (“Al catarro, con el jarro!”) which gave me a great excuse to hang out in bed for several days and plow through a few books starting with:

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone On the Media (Illustrated by Josh Neufeld): I’m not sure if this can be called a graphic novel… It’s more like a perky, optimistic illustrated history of journalism. Gladstone takes the story of the media all the way back to Julius Caesar’s public posting of the Senate’s activities on a handwritten sheet and brings us all the way into the Information Age and even gives us a taste of what the future has in store for us. (“Scientists are developing ways to reach the Web using invisible brain implants. Intel Corporation predicts it will succeed by 2020.”) She believes the media doesn’t control us, it panders to us. (“We get the media we deserve.”)

influencing machine

There was a nice little tidbit in here about Spain. “The legendary British journalist Claud Cockburn was on vacation in Spain in July 1936 when the Spanish army under General Francisco Franco rose up against the democratically elected Republican government. Like many journalists, Cockburn saw the Spanish Civil War as the decisive battle between freedom and Fascism. He believed the anti-Fascist forces needed a victory to hold the world’s gaze, so he invented a battle in which they triumphed over Franco’s army. He lied. As for the public’s right to know? Cockburn said:‘Who gave them such a right? Perhaps when they have exerted themselves enough to alter the policy of their bloody government and the Fascists are beaten in Spain, they will have such a right. This isn’t an abstract question. It’s a shocking war.’  The Fascists won. Franco’s dictatorship lasted 35 years. Cockburn never regretted what he did to try to stop it.”

Lola’s mother was born in 1939 less than a month after the war ended. Lola was born in the spring of 1976 just five months after Franco died. I’ve heard my mother-in-law talk about the difficult life her family lived under Franco. After his death the transition to democracy began and by the late 1970s my wife was living a childhood across the Atlantic  not so vastly different than the one I was living in the US. I salute Mr. Cockburn and his lie. He was on the right side of history and he knew it.

Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby by Geoffrey Wolff: How to sum up Harry Crosby… He was one of the wildest, most reckless members of the expatriate community living in Paris during the 1920s. He drank, he gambled, he experimented with drugs, he participated in orgies, and he still found time to write some poetry. He was from a wealthy Boston banking family. J.P. Morgan was an uncle.


Black Sun by Geoffrey Wolff

After serving as an ambulance driver in WWI, which he narrowly escaped with his life, he settled in Paris and became friends with Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dalí, Archibald MacLeish and Henri Cartier-Bresson among others. Harry started Black Sun Press with his wife Caresse and they published the works of many writers such as James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Kay Boyle and Hart Crane before they became well known.

One incident from the book that has stuck with me: Harry inherited 8,000 books when his cousin Walter died and he made it his mission to get rid of each and every one after reading them. His wife watched in horror as he left the apartment every day with bags full of books.

“He pressed first editions of Baudelaire on anyone he met and liked, and finally commenced a pretty trick, smuggling rare volumes into Seine-side bookstalls, marking them with absurdly low prices, and leaving them among odds and ends, laughing to imagine with what amazement they would be discovered by browsers, and with what confusion the bookstall owners would respond to Harry’s mischief.”

In December 1929 Harry and one of his lovers were found dead in an apparent suicide pact at a friend’s apartment in New York City. He was 31 years old.

One Day in the Afternoon of the World: A Novel by William Saroyan: “October came to him in the first tumble and plunge of sleep, in the pause of the body abed, at rest, away from the world, away from its inhabitant, away from the sick body, heavy now, flooded with whisky, glutted with food.”


William Saroyan

Not nearly his best book, but interesting enough if you’re a Saroyan fan. Having read a biography (Saroyan by L. Lee and B. Gifford) as well as a couple of memoirs by Saroyan’s son, I’m familiar with what was going on in the writer’s life when he wrote this book in the early 1960s. It’s interesting to read Saroyan’s fictionalised account of his struggles with his ex-wife, his fading career, the taxman… Of course, he makes himself out to be the good guy with an enormous heart who is extremely generous with his time and his money. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. But he sure could write:

“He walked, one of many still abroad in the world, in the street, as the time of one day moved to midnight and the line marking the end of it and the beginning of the next one, one day overlapping another, every day gone with work unfinished, things to do, places to go, people to see, words to be spoken, a man himself unfinished, unfinishable, even by death unfinishable, even in birth unfinishable, a walker through days and nights until he is forty-seven all of a sudden. Nothing waited for anybody. Everything moved, and the bus always got away. Everybody saw it go. Everybody was sorry to see it go, and took a drink, told a joke, said a prayer, wept, kissed, or swore.”

Wondrous Times on the Frontier by Dee Brown: Whereas Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is one of the saddest damn books in the English language Wondrous Times covers the lighter side (at least so far, I’m only 80 pages in) of life in the West during the heyday of the American frontier. Brown gives us lots of firsthand accounts from frontier newspapers, letters and diaries detailing everyday realities like food (usually awful), accommodation (usually riddled with lice) travel (usually dangerous), medicine (sheesh), etc. The Texas rancher Charles Goodnight’s remedy for hemorrhoids was a homemade suppository of pure salt in a base of buffalo tallow. If that wasn’t enough to make your eyes water, you could choose the more popular method of directly applying turpentine to the problem.

A traveler heading west in 1846 found himself the center of attention in a frontier outpost when his toothbrush was spotted.

“One of them asked permission to look at it. The brush then passed from hand to hand, each one, as he examined it, making some remark about its shape, structure, utility, etc. They all, however, concurred in pronouncing it one of the most curious things they had ever beheld.”


Wondrous Times on the Frontier by Dee Brown

A newspaper account of a hotel’s insect problems in Albuquerque, New Mexico brought back some slightly disturbing memories of a place I stayed in Sofia, Bulgaria back in the mid 1990s:

“B.P., who went from here to Fort Wingate a few days ago, passed the night at the Rito, unable to sleep for several hours on account of the chinchas which amused themselves racing over his body. About midnight he sent one of the house for a leg of mutton, paying him a dollar for his services. Putting the meat in the middle of the floor, the chinchas went to the banquet and B.P. slept very well until morning.”

I arrived in Sofia by train after midnight and had no guidebook, no map, and no friend or acquaintance living in the city. Judging by the sketchy characters hanging around the train station I knew I had to find a place to stay. And fast. I started walking toward what seemed to be the right direction for the center of town. Not far from the station I found a seedy hotel and fortunately there was a room available. (I believe the price of the room was a mere $8 US dollars.) When I got up to the room the first thing I did was check the faucet (or “the tap” for my non-American English speaking readers). I was extremely surprised (and relieved) to find there was hot water. The room contained two single beds and an ugly, battered, tan linoleum floor that had a hole about the size of a large shoe right in the middle of it. I peeked inside the hole and caught a glimpse of some rotting floorboards which made me wonder about the structural integrity of the crusty old building. However, that was to be the least of my worries as there was a steady stream of cockroaches coming and going from the hole and they didn’t show the slightest sign of having any fear whatsoever of the light being turned on, or of my presence in their room.

I was too exhausted to go down to reception and complain. I had spent the last few nights sleeping rough – Greek beaches (well, maybe not that rough) followed by a sleepless night on the floor of the train station in Skopje, Macedonia – and I was so overjoyed to have a bed and hot water at my disposal that I didn’t want to jinx it. I peeled off my semi-rancid clothes and stuffed my socks in the hole in the floor. They were beyond all hope. There isn’t a washing detergent on earth that could have saved them. As I jumped in the shower a massive cockroach took flight and began circling overhead. I grabbed the shower head which was connected to the wall by a piece of old garden hose, cranked the hot water all the way up and took aim. I figured I’d burn and/or drown the disgusting creature in mid-flight and that would be the end of that. Boy, was I wrong. I hit the light bulb with that jet of hot water and it exploded. The bathroom had no windows and I had closed the door behind me when I entered. So there I was, trapped in a pitch black bathroom with boiling hot water spraying everywhere, tiny shards of glass all over the floor and a fearless flying cockroach circling overhead. I fumbled around, desperately slapping at the walls in an attempt to shut off the water. By the time I managed to do that the tops of my feet were pretty well scalded. Then I had to feel my way over to the door as delicately as possible to avoid stepping on shards of broken light bulb.

As stressful as that moment in the shower had been, it was still a damn sight better than the floor of a train station. Later I managed to drift off to sleep for a bit, but I opened my eyes at one point and there was a cockroach on my fecking pillow. It was a rather sleepless night, to say the least.

The following day I saw an old Ursari Gypsy with his dancing bear in the enormous square of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. There weren’t many tourists around and I watched the old man and the bear for a long time from a distance. He would walk up to small groups of people and whack the bear with a stick to make it stand on its hind legs and dance. The object was obviously to get people to toss him a few coins for the spectacle. But all the old man got in return were looks of disgust and people turning their backs on the whole affair. It was pretty awful and it’s no surprise that animal rights activists have been trying for ages to get this sort of thing banned.


Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca

Apparently bear cubs are trained by burning their paws while playing music and offering them bits of meat. Isabel Fonseca writes about the Ursari in her book Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey which I read back in university (otherwise I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea that I was witnessing an Ursari Gypsy). The few Ursari who still make a living training bears – the numbers are  dwindling due to the younger generation having little or no interest in the practice – spend the winter months in the forests planning their summer routes and by spring they are on the road again with their trained bears and monkeys. Fonseca doesn’t defend the practice of training the bears, but what she saw did contradict what she had been told by animal rights activists. And I quote: “…the bears I saw, bought, – or rescued – from East European zoos, were clearly loved by their keepers. As the primary bread-winners, and expensive to replace, they were also the best-fed members of the clan.”


Ursari in Transylvania, 1869 engraving

Here in Plasencia we have two Gypsy neighborhoods: el Barrio de los Mártires (“the Neighborhood of the Martyrs”) and el Barrio de San Lázaro (“the Neighborhood of Saint Lazarus”). El chatarrero (the scrap dealer) lives in el Barrio de los Mártires. He has a large field filled with rusted out machinery and a crumbling warehouse filled with loads of furniture and tons of absolute junk. Occasionally you stumble upon something pretty amazing and if you enjoy haggling as if your life depended on it, it just might be yours.

When we bought a run-down apartment a few years ago and started renovating we had to get rid of the old toilets, sinks, bathtub, some old furniture, etc. We called el chatarrero one day. He told us to take everything downstairs (so he didn’t have to lug it all out to the street by himself) and then call him and he’d be there in five minutes. Of course, no price is mentioned when organizing all of this. The guy’s an absolute pro. He avoids discussing money by dominating the conversation completely and acting as if he’s in a big hurry. He hangs up before you find an opportunity to ask how much he’s going to pay you for everything. He shows up and his two sons quickly start loading everything into the back of the van while he chats away on his cell phone. Then he hems and haws and complains that it’s all crap that he’s not going to be able to sell. But, he’s a nice guy so he’ll do you the favor of taking it all off your hands so you don’t have to haul it all out to the town dump. Then he peels a 20 euro note off a massive wad of cash he’s got in his pocket a la Goodfellas and says, “Have a couple of beers on me”. And of course I’m not going to argue with the guy because there is no way in hell I’m going to drag all that shit back up the stairs.

The following morning the two guys that were helping me fix up the apartment arrived as I was making coffee. Miguel said,

“¿Qué tal te ha ido con el chatarrero?”

“How’d it go with the scrap dealer?”

“Me ha dado veinte euros.”

“He gave me 20 euros.”

“¡Americano!. ¡Te ha engañado!”

“Yankee! He swindled you!”

“Ya lo se, ya lo se…”

“I know, I know…”

“¡Va a ganar por lo menos diez veces más, después de vender todo eso!”

“He’s gonna make at least ten times that much after he sells all that stuff!”

“¡No puedo regatear!”

“I can’t haggle!”

“¡Eso está clarísimo!”

“That’s obvious!”

“De todas formas, me alegro mucho de que se haya llevado toda esa mierda de mi casa.”

“Anyway, I’m just glad he took all that crap off my hands.”

gypsy family extremadurajpg

Gypsy family in Extremadura, 1965 by Irving Penn

Then Miguel told me about the time he drove over to el chatarrero with a van full of copper pipe. The old Gypsy tried the same thing with Miguel. He was busy talking on the phone while his sons emptied the van. Then he walked over and complained about the quality of the product and peeled 20 euros off that great big wad of cash. Miguel laughed and started loading the copper back into his van. In the end the scrap dealer coughed up 80 euros and Miguel drove on out of there a happy man.

El barrio de los Mártires is really only a couple of streets surrounded by olive groves on the opposite side of the Jerte river from where most of the town is located. It’s connected to the rest of Plasencia by a little Roman bridge which was made “pedestrian only” just a few years ago. We used to drive over the bridge because it was a shortcut to get to the N630 heading up the valley. Every time I drove across it I used to think, I can’t believe cars are allowed to drive over this Roman bridge. Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking that and somebody with a bit of power finally had the good sense to forbid cars from crossing it.

I was tooling around on my bike a few years ago up in the hills between Plasencia and the village of Malpartida de Plasencia and I got lost on the little rural back roads. I started going downhill figuring I’d find the river at some point. Well, I ended up right in the heart of el Barrio de los Mártires. As I sped past the church which is a simple cement block building with a tin roof to keep the rain out (which you wouldn’t even know was a church if it didn’t have “Iglesia Evangelica de Filadelfia” painted on the side of it) two little old Gypsy women dressed head to toe in black (naturally) and a few little Gypsy boys kicking a ball stopped what they were doing and sized me up.

Now, el Barrio de San Lázaro is another story altogether. It’s completely off limits. I’ve lived here over 11 years now and I’ve never once set foot in San Lázaro. Like el Barrio de los Mártires, it’s only a few streets. It’s also on the other side of the Jerte river, but a bit farther downstream. San Lázaro makes the regional news quite frequently: drugs, guns, suitcases full of cash, stolen goods… If something illegal is happening in town, San Lázaro is most likely where it’s happening.

Other than el chatarrero, I can only remember two times when I had any dealings with local Gypsies. When I arrived over here in 2003 Lola was studying for her driver’s license. Her driving teacher, Jesús, was a real character. When he found out that one of his student’s was dating (we weren’t married yet) a bona fide Yankee he wanted to meet me. So during her last couple of classes I went along for the ride. It was springtime and the weather was beautiful. I was in the back seat with the window rolled down one day and as we entered a roundabout I spotted a Gypsy. He was dressed in the typical nearly threadbare all black suit with a black cowboy hat cocked at an angle. He was walking straight through the middle of the roundabout. Not only was he walking straight through the middle of the roundabout, but he was walking alongside a horse.

Jesús leaned out the window and said, “¿Cuánto quieres por el caballo?” (“How much do you want for the horse?”) Since we were in a roundabout Lola was driving extremely slowly. The Gypsy yelled, “¡Para el coche y hablamos!” (“Stop the car and we’ll talk!”) Jesús told Lola to pull over – right there in the roundabout – ¡Viva España! – and he got out and started shooting the breeze with the guy. Apparently his kids had left the back gate open and the horse got out of the yard and wandered into town. He was on his way home after collecting the horse from the police station. Of course, I had only been in Spain about a month so I understood none of the conversation and was actually kind of unnerved by the whole incident.

A couple of years later I was working for my brother-in-law’s company doing a job at an abandoned building that had once been a  residence for retired military personnel. The gardens were completely overgrown. There was ivy consuming the building and brambles covering everything else in sight. We were there with strimmers and chainsaws and rakes tidying up the place. There was about an eight foot wall around the entire property. We backed the flatbed truck right up against the wall and were throwing bags of rubbish and grass clippings over it into the back of the truck. There was an empty swimming pool behind the building and a restroom / changing room next to it. I was standing in the back of the truck and my two co-workers were on the other side of the wall when an old Gypsy climbed up into the truck right beside me and leaned over the wall to have a look around. He spotted the restroom / changing room and started climbing over the wall.

Halfway over he said, “Ayúdame.” (“Help me.”)

I grabbed his massive leathery old hand and helped lower him over the wall. My two co-workers watched in silence as the old man walked over to the restroom and stepped inside. We heard him banging around in there for a moment and then he walked back over to the truck.

“Dame un martillo.” (“Give me a hammer.”)

I handed him a hammer. He walked back into the restroom and started making a helluva racket.

One of my co-workers asked me, “¿Por qué coño le has dado un martillo?” (“Why the fuck did you give him a hammer?”)

“¿Por qué no?” (“Why not?”) The place was a shambles. Everything was covered in graffiti, the windows were all smashed out and the doors kicked in. It was nearly impossible to do anymore damage to the place. A couple of minutes later the old man strolled back over to the truck, tossed me the hammer and some copper pipe and I helped him back over the wall again.

“Gracias, chico.” (Thanks, kid.”)

“No hay de qué.” (“It was nothing.”)

“Hasta luego.” (“See you around.”)



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