Return to index

Down Fuencarral:
A Scene from Madrid at the Beginning of the 21st Century

To walk down Calle Fuencarral from Bilbao Square early on a Sunday morning is to become a voyeur of Saturday night, without having to risk participation. Even at this hour, when the light of Sunday morning is beginning to appear in the eastern sky over the broad Calle Sagasta, only the starry black sky of Saturday night is visible in the narrow Calle Fuencarral, which cuts through the square from the north. The waiters of Café Comercial are starting to bring tables out to the square, while a few meters away, at the Fuencarral Starbucks, the metal blinds are still closed and streaked with smears like end-of-the-night eye makeup where the drunks have pissed on them. There are almost no taxis. The few that go by have the saving beacons of their vacancy lights turned off, so they don’t have to take a fare who will puke on their upholstery or pick a fight. Ambulances circle, their sirens off but their amber lights flashing.

The entrances to the Bilbao and Tribunal metro stations are closed, their gates blocked with bundles of today’s newspapers –or tomorrow’s, rather– for the sales kiosks that haven’t opened yet. We have to zigzag around the detritus of the night: Mahou beer cans, crushed like fruits from which the last drop has been squeezed, and plastic cups, in which the last ice cubes have refused to transubstantiate into morning dew. Next to the Cajamadrid of Barcelo Plaza, which is covered with anti-capitalist tattoos, two lesbians are kissing –one is pretty, we think with a certain wistfulness, using the judicious “we” of the gossip columnist or the disembodied but undoubtedly heterosexual onlooker. The ugly lesbian disentangles her tongue piercing from her partner’s in order to stick her head in the ATM box and confess the secret number. The box retches and spits up Euros that will allow the two young women to put off the arrival of the new day for one more hour. From the side streets that open onto the very gay Pelayo Street appear groups with voices hoarse from shouting in the places where they drank, watched bands, and used designer drugs. They cross Fuencarral and go over to Malasaña Street, passing instantaneously from the disenchanted nineties to the exuberant eighties. Every few meters, someone wrapped up in his own private world, looking at the ground with a cell phone cupped in the palm of his hand, raises it to his ear like an imam or mufti preparing to call the people to morning prayer but only shouts fuck, guys, where’d you go? A little further down, a Chinese woman balances plastic bags in both arms while she sells, without announcing them, dinner-breakfasts of fried rice. The same group that a few streets earlier had crossed in the direction of Malasaña now leaves even more hoarse from Chueca, the Plaza of Our Lady of Smack, to cross over to Hortaleza-of-the-Holy-Clap. Two South American drag queens, big as mountains –the Andes?– push their silicon Aconcaguas up the street, after a whole night of sodomy for hire in the red light district between the streets of Desengaño and Ballesta. Around their Adam’s apples, stubble sprouts through the caked-on makeup like the spines of a sea-urchin. A dog from the night before, who is no longer interested in anything, lets himself be sniffed in the rear by one who has been put out for his morning pee and is still interested in everything. A police car passes. There are two young city cops inside, safe in their civil-service bubble under the aegis of an emblem that looks obscenely like a bear fucking a tree. They refuse to look at the sidewalks and, above all, at the loser with punkish green hair who sits handcuffed and demoniac in the backseat.

Very near the junction with Gran Vía there is a team of street-sweepers, using their hoses to cleanse the sidewalks of vomited food steeped in morning dew. In the advance guard there is a young man who fits the popular stereotype of the African-Spaniard, slender, childlike, and very well-endowed, who knows how to use the hose with rhythm. The jet of the nozzles produces a wave with a reef of beer cans, plastic cups, and the empty wrappers of condoms in Latin flavors. In the almost-flat section of the Fuencarral that opens onto Gran Vía, there no longer remains anything of the previous night. The sun is reflected on the newly-washed pavement, confirming that yesterday is finally today. Behind, in Fuencarral, the denizens of Saturday night return to dust. They will have gone back to finish it off in the check-out-by-noon bed of a pension that was once managed by a Galician but now by a cousin from Argentina, che. Those with tolerant, easygoing parents will have brought home the casual partners picked up while they were out, along with a copy of the País-with-Sunday-supplement-plus-beachsandals-plus-free-coupon as a sacrificial offering to placate the spirits of their elders. Some will drink their last-but-one in places that open when the housewives, before breakfast, go down to the convenience store for bread and milk and, while they’re at it, snatch copies of the 20 Minutos from the hands of eighty thousand Ecuadorian vendors for all their favorite neighbors in the building. On the other side of Gran Vía, at the McDonald’s that looks from the outside like a nineteenth-century café, the splendid Madrid morning has already sat down to eat breakfast. From its guarded doors, there emerges a group of young backpackers full of egg breakfasts, typically blond and with “Backpacking Europe” guides under their arms. They cross paths (ignoring each other) with a group clad in Lacoste and Burberry, who are preparing themselves to start their pilgrimage on the Camino by receiving their own sort of communion, a whopper. Despite their summers in Ireland and Canada, they pronounce its name hopper, with a strongly aspirated h, not whispering it with the smooth little hw of a kiss or a blowjob. They wear the prematurely profound expressions of those who have stuffed their brains with facts in pursuit of a coveted notaryship. From their arms hang the accessories expected of gentlemen of their class: ambitious girlfriends, fashionably emaciated celebrity-clones. The private security guard at the door, an Asturian whose grandfather was a worker up at the mine and his father one of the baton-wielding night watchmen of a bygone era hardly looks at them. It is at this moment that we feel a pleasant tickling sensation on the soles of our feet, which tells us that the first subway train has passed. So we descend into the urinal-and-sleeping-quarters underground tunnel of the metro at Gran Vía Números Pares and take the blue line to arrive without transferring at the station Our Lady of Atocha (now Our Lady of the Plastic Explosives), where we wait for a train that will finally get us the hell out of Madrid.

Enrique Fernández, Canada, Spain © 2007

Click here to see this story in Spanish [AQUI]

Translation by Christine Neulieb © 2009

Return to index