Saturday, August 18, 2001
Notes from recent travels:
August 8: a summer morning in Madrid, early sunlight slowly beginning to find its way down city streets. The previous days had been warm and then some, temperatures coasting up past the 100°F mark. And humid -- not a common feature of hot weather here. This morning promised more of the same.
Made it to the Metro by 7 a.m. for the ride to the airport. Lots of manual laborers on the train, August being a big month for street and construction work -- with half the city away on vacation, it's easier on everyone all the way around. An orange sun, bloated with early morning heat, slowly made its way free of the hills to the east of the runway as the plane lifted off and Madrid dropped away.
Arrived in Paris via train from Orly Airport just before midday. Temperatures in the upper 60s, partly-cloudy skies looking autumnal. Found my way to Gare du Nord to board the Eurostar for London.
If you can get up the scratch to ride first-class from Paris to London (or vice versa), consider it. It's a great way to go. Really -- don't make the mistake of thinking it a pathetic, bourgeoisie indulgence. It's a genuinely superior way to go, with sales or discounted fares often available. Comfortable, quiet, with beautiful views -- the land between Paris and Calais is a lovely, wide-skied expanse of rolling countryside, farms, small towns. Green, verdant, all that. And the train, one of the high-speed breed, moves rapidly enough through it all that the clouds glide by as if on fast-forward, providing a smooth, strangely amped-up counterpoint to the rustic serenity stretched out beneath.
And then London -- cool, cloudy, often wet. Summer essentially disappeared until my return to Madrid.
Walking to the South Bank from Waterloo station. The route I'm taking includes a long pedestrian walkway which passes through two genuinely sizeable office buildings. After the second pass-through, there's a courtyard on one side of the walkway with tables, chairs, plants. Nice. On the walkway's other side sits an area of wasteland -- the kind of place usually found on the roofs of large buildings. Spare, industrial-looking, unattractive, featuring large ventilation/air conditioning ducts and not much else. Not on top of a building in this case, but tucked away to one side of this little courtyard area.
Perched atop some of the venting ducts are large wooden tubs. Originally intended, apparently, to contain flowers or plants, though fatally neglected. If flowers ever grew in these tubs they'd long disappeared, nothing remaining but dirt and spikey, tough-looking weeds.
On the side of the building which faces that area there are windows, blacked out from the inside with paint.
And that's all. Not a hugely attractive stretch.
At two points in that desolate little area, above blacked-out windows, someone posted signs that read: This area is alarmed.
I would be, too.
Tuesday, September 18, 2001
Sunday night around eleven: went out to get some air and pick up a sandwich. A beautiful September evening -- cool enough to be refreshing, not so cool that one needed a jacket. People filled the plaza, out enjoying themselves. A jazz duo -- trumpet and guitar, both accomplished musicians -- played off to one side, their music at a volume respectful of the local residents. When I went by, they were into a version of Fly Me To The Moon, it feeling strange to hear music here that I associate strongly with the States.
And speaking of the residents, I noticed another for-sale sign has appeared on one of the balcones above the plaza. Same building as the earlier one, higher up. On a balcón to the left of that, someone had hung a handwritten sign that read "BONGOS NO!"
Yes, bongos. Not just a surreal non sequitur, that -- there have been nights recently when some misguided, overenthusiastic party nitwits have taken up posts in the plaza, hammering away on laptop percussion instruments until the wee hours.
I picked up a bocadillo de pollo -- a chicken sandwich on a baguette -- at a good, small bocadillería around the block from the plaza, on the way back stopped at a bar down the street from my place to try something I'd tasted a couple of times some months back, vermouth and soda. A couple of sips might have been fine. An entire tumblerful or even half of one turned out to be less than wonderful. Man, talk about sickly sweet. (But that's just me. Someone else might find it nice and tangy.)
I've been doing that lately, trying out things I might have liked years in the past. In each case I've gotten to remember all over again why I stopped doing them in the first place.
For instance, during my recent visit to London I stayed in a group house in Clapham North, in the bedroom of a friend who'd traveled to Australia for a month. An interesting neighborhood -- completely working class, originally, both sides of the street consisting of the same house over and over again, all attached, stretching off into the distance. The current version of the neighborhood had become multi-ethnic, with a heavy concentration of caribbean.
The five-minute walk to the Underground took me along a stretch of street with shops here and there, a restaurant, a bakery, a pub -- including, right around the corner from my squat for the trip, a small produce shop. I'd pass by in the morning on the way into central London, they'd be opening for business, putting out crates of fruit or unloading produce from a truck. All black folks, Caribbean, some with dreadlocks. Never looking at me.
I stopped there one morning to pick up fruit for my host household, found myself some bananas, went inside to pay up. Three or four people hung about in the shop, all black, including a tall, handsome woman behind the counter and a skinny teenage girl sitting in front of the counter. Conversation stopped on my entry, no one met my eye. When I lay the bananas on the counter, the teenager produced an unpleasant snort of laughter that accompanied an unfriendly-looking smirk. The woman behind the counter also seemed less than cordial, charged me a fairly high sum for the bananas. I chalked it up to experience, decided to make my next purchase at a shop up the street, went on with my day.
Shortly before the end of my stay, during a conversation about the neighborhood with one of my housemates, I mentioned that produce shop visit.
"The Green Leaf Café?" she said, laughing.
"The what?" I responded.
"That's the Green Leaf Café. They sell marijuana there."
"Sell marijuana. The produce shop is a front."
And it suddenly all made sense: the atmosphere inside (they weren't acquainted with me -- for all they knew I could have been with the Old Bill), their hours (open 'til late, late, late at night -- every single time I'd return to the house at the end of an evening out in central London they'd be open, regardless of the hour), the general vibe. In that part of London, it turned out, possession of marijuana had been decriminalized, so it may be that their type of operation had become a low priority for the police, or palms were being greased. Or maybe they maintained a low enough profile that the issue never came up.
I mentioned all this to another friend (an American expat living in London), marvelling at my ignorance -- turned out this person had been looking to score some pot, but had no connections, had no idea how to cultivate any. She wanted to come out immediately and make a purchase. The person in the household who'd clued me in offered to accompany us, that was all my friend needed to hear. Thirty minutes later, I found myself in front of the Café, friend and housemate chatting together like old friends, like partners in crime.
We entered the shop, started toward the hallway that led to the room where the dope was sold. The man behind the counter stopped us. "What would you like?" he asked. We started to tell him, he cut us off, saying again, "What would you like?" It finally dawned that there was protocol to be followed: the customer first had to buy something out front. We picked up a couple of bottles of water and rolling papers, paid up, were then allowed to wander out back.
It looked exactly like something from a movie. (Life imitating art? Art imitating life?) A narrow, dirty hallway with a grubby, well-worn wooden floor. A bare lightbulb hung from a cord at a turn in the hallway, the corridor leading from there to a small, crudely furnished room. A heavyset black woman in her late 20's sat at a small table, a bunch of teeny plastic packets of pot lay on display before her. Two types of dope: normal and heavy-duty. My friend picked up a packet of high-test for 10 pounds -- steep pricing I thought, considering the packet's near-microscopic size. During the transaction, a dreadlocked guy who'd been hanging out in the front room came down the hall into the room, his vibe intensifying a strange sensation of us/them, black/white, or whatever it was. Three honkies buying drugs from some black folks. My heart actually went out to the young woman sitting at the table -- she did not look happy to be in that squalid, dimly-lit space peddling weed.
We left. My friend talked with my housemate about whether or not she'd gotten beat on the price/quantity ratio. They seemed to think it may have been a bad deal, then conferred with yet another housemate who turned out to be a shitfaced, having been sitting in his room smoking dope likely purchased at the same shop. I volunteered to go back with my friend, we thanked the others, returned to the shop. Complied with protocol, buying more rolling papers in the front room. After which my friend copped a packet of normal dope, to compare with the batch of high-test she'd already picked up.
My friend is not a pothead. She claimed she wanted the stuff to help her unwind before bed, I believe her. But now that she had some in her hot little hands, she wanted to try it out. Rather than sample it where I was staying, which would mean her driving home stoned, I offered to return with her to her place and take the tube back to Clapham North afterwards. She took me up on it, we hopped in her car, headed north to Central London.
Several lifetimes ago, many years back, I smoked a lot of dope. Engaged in other acivities, too, both positive and negative, but I think the smoking was one of the pasttimes most emblematic of those somewhat lost years. I'm happy to say I stopped a long time ago. 'Cause frankly, smoking did lousy things for me. Over the last year or two, I'd begun wondering about all that, curious whether the activity might be different for an older, more relaxed me. Curious, but not enough to pursue it. I thought maybe I'd investigate if the opportunity ever arose with a friend, a situation that might lend a sense of security to that kind of exploration.
I suddenly found myself in exactly that situation. Sitting in a friend's London home, rolling a joint -- a kind of action my fingers hadn't seen in eons. My friend decided to sample the normal stuff, that's what got rolled. She sparked the bone -- a thin one, nothing extravagant -- and between the two of us we did about half of it.
Turned out to be potent, the normal stuff, so potent that my friend found she wouldn't need to smoke more than a little bit at a time, less than a quarter of a J. And me -- I found myself reliving scenes I'd experienced years earlier: forgetting what I was saying in the middle of a sentence, losing track of my thoughts, feeling insecure about myself and how I was expressing my thoughts. Not paralyzed, not demolished, but heavily abstracted, and not enjoying it much. Reconfirming my memories of it, in fact.
Here's the truth -- I don't enjoy getting drunk or stoned. I prefer clarity, or at least what passes for clarity in my case. It's that simple. I'm happier in my normal state -- that might make those familiar with my normal state a bit nervous, but there it is. Do I like the taste of a good beer with a meal now and then? Yeah, I do, but since I'm a cheap date -- and I truly am; one doesn't have to pump much alcohol into my system to get me in the back seat with my pants down, metaphorically speaking -- I generally stick to one beer. And then I'm happy. Which is all that counts.
It's good to have questions, and it's good to have questions answered. It's good to find out what one does and doesn't enjoy. Yada yada yada.