We sat in the shade finishing our double bourbons as the matador delivered the coup de grace.
Less than twelve feet in front of us the massive bull collapsed, convulsing and belching out what seemed a river of blood into the sand of Barcelona’s bull arena.
I turned to Doug and asked if he wanted another drink. He smiled and said, “Do you really have to ask?”
As I got up, a team of horses was lead into the arena to haul away the bull’s carcass. As I returned, lost in thought, I became aware of a strange far-away sound. It sounded like bells. Men around me started shouting in Spanish, gesticulating wildly and pointing. I turned to see what they were so excited about discovered the team of horses dragging the dead bull bearing down upon me at full gallup. I literally ran for my life, narrowly avoiding being trampled to death. I somehow managed to spill not a single drop of two double bourbons on ice.
Oh, running with the bulls is fine, but if you want a real thrill, try running from a team of horses with a fat pair of bourbons in your paws.
Doug, Albin and I had been drowning in sangria and bourbon since early morning, but one man in the arena had clearly dove in far deeper than us. He stood swaying like a pendulum, shouting insults at the matador until nearly everyone in the arena swore they would murder him. Our native guide translated his colorful language for our amusement: “Hey, matador! My little sister could kill a bull quicker than you! I’d rather take a shit than watch this farce!”
Just as it seemed a homicidal riot was imminent, two policemen appeared and dragged the angry gentleman away. He didn’t go willingly, kicking and shouting while loudly insisting that the day of the angry bull was long gone. And soon so was he.
When the last bull died it’s inevitable death, we retired to a bar near our hotel for a brunch consisting mostly of more sangria. The thing about sangria is, once you start it’s difficult to stop. When the food arrived, a man began hollering from the other end of the room. The voice seemed strangely familiar and, sure enough, it was the vocal gentleman from the arena. I had to meet him.
Translator in tow, I walked over to shake the man’s hand and buy him a drink. I told him I’d enjoyed his spirited discourse on the state of bullfighting at the arena. He shook his head sadly, and affirmed, not unfamiliarly, that the angry bull was long gone and had been notoriously replaced by lazy and shiftless bulls. It wasn’t like the old days, he said, a real bullfighter like El Cordobe would never have sunk so low as to kill a lazy bull. Where had the real men gone? A thing of the past like the angry bull. As we parted the man grasped my hand firmly, telling me I was a great guy, for a tourist.
We shifted to an outdoor café on the Ramblas–the huge boulevard that runs through the heart of Barcelona–to swill sangria until Cela arrived. No ordinary friend was Cela, she was our key to Barcelona’s hidden subculture. She’d promised to take us to secret bars frequented only by locals, mysterious dives unbeknownst to travel guides and tourists, bearing no signs and hidden above and below twisting side streets. Places that wouldn’t let a stranger cross the threshold unless accompanied by a known patron.
Bidding adieu to Doug, Albin and I followed Cela down countless narrow alleys and dramatically under-lit cobblestone streets, finally arriving at a stout wooden door. Cela knocked on the door and a small window opened, just like a speakeasy in the movies. The man eyed us suspiciously for a moment then the door swung wide.
We were greeted by what seemed to be world’s longest and steepest staircase. The steps were treacherously narrow, twice as high as they were deep and made of unforgiving cement—one misstep and you’d careen head over heels into a strange world, undoubtedly gathering a broken neck along the way. And it was strange, one of the most bizarre layouts I’d ever laid eyes on. This odd club was divided into perhaps ten levels, each consisting of nothing more than an alcove carved out of solid rock and fitted with a booth. It might once have been a crypt employed during a more ancient time, populated by those who lived and died in the dwellings above. We secured a booth near the bottom and I realized that no booth was in sight of another. Each group of patrons was shut away in their own tiny, claustrophobic cell.
The barkeep was stationed in an alcove near the middle and to get service one needed only to shout up the stairwell and the man would appear with alarming alacrity. He leapt up and down the staircase like a mountain goat on speed. As fascinating as the place was, after a couple of beers the cryptic ambience became overbearing and we ascended back into the night.
Another darkened alley led us to a faded green door, just like in the song. We knocked, yet another tiny door at eye level slid open, and we were quickly ushered inside.
We were greeted with a scene straight out of a Fellini film, or perhaps Isherwood-era Berlin. The room was dense with smoke and on the tiny stage a midget wearing too much pancake makeup labored over an accordion. The walls were lined solid with vintage photos and posters of a glamorous Spanish movie star and singer, the club’s owner and hostess who, eerily enough, appeared suddenly before us, clasping our hands with a warm welcome. She was much older and somewhat plumper than in the faded photos from at least the ‘40s, yet she still exuded an tangible aura of glamour, her hair was dyed jet black and her eye makeup hadn’t changed a bit.
The club’s clientele looked as if someone had sent to central casting for an assortment of decedents, eccentrics and prostitutes. Aristocratic older men in evening dress mixed with transvestites, and yet more midgets.
The accordion music abruptly ended and the club’s hostess took the stage. After addressing the adoring crowd, a small band joined her and she began belting out a song she’d made famous decades ago. Her voice was still incredibly powerful and the song was punctuated with a series of dramatic hand gestures as she pantomimed each line. The crowd ate it up, though they’d probably witnessed the routine ad infinitum.
For us first-timers it was a mind-boggling spectacle, the stuff found on the pages of pulp fiction, playing out before our very eyes: A faded star trying to hold on to a long bygone glamour, a dramatic struggle to keep the faded dream alive, if only in a tiny cabaret hidden away on a lonely unlit street in Barcelona. Cela informed us this was Marc Almond’s favorite bar in the city. I didn’t doubt it.
We stayed for three rounds and I could have sat and drank in the atmosphere (and booze) for an eternity, and would have if Cela hadn’t mentioned the our next stop was a secret absinthe hideaway.
For all intents and purposes the absinthe bar looked like any other bar in Barcelona. We didn’t even have to speak to a doorman through a tiny opening to get in. There were windows, for crissakes, through which passersby could gaze in with impunity. Some secret.
The waiter approached and rallied his limited resources of English, sounding not unlike Ricky Ricardo. We shyly asked for absinthe and he acted as if we’re asking directions to the Brooklyn Bridge. Cela leaned in to have a quick word with him in Spanish and his demeanor immediately changed. He ushered us into a small room in the back, well out of public view. He quickly returned with a tray bearing a small carafe of absinthe, a large carafe of ice water and a box of sugar cubes. After preparing our drinks he hustled off and left us to alone with the green fairy. It wasn’t our first meeting with absinthe, but this particular brand seemed stronger and more god-awfully bitter than usual. After an hour of hacking through the wormwood jungle we decided to move on.
Cela led us to a part of town we were vaguely familiar with and abandoned us to our own devices. It was quite late and the streets were deserted save for prostitutes and burly doormen guarding flashy nightspots full of tourists. We began to wander and naturally we soon found ourselves in an extremely sleazy sector of the city, crowded with strip clubs and garish neon signs flashing that universal siren call: SEX, SEX, SEX.
Albin’s eyes lit up and he somehow managed to convince me the night was, in fact, quite young. Now our only problem was option anxiety—which of these wicked places would deliver the most lurid behavior? Albin spied a neon sign several blocks down flashing SS Club.
“What could be this?” he inquired in his childlike Austrian accent, “a place where strippers are taking off German uniforms?”
It would surely be the ultimate in kink. Our decision was made. As we approached, we were gravely disappointed to discover the sign actually read KISS Club, the devious K and I were burned out. Still, we figured fate had lured us there for a reason, and we determined to find out what that reason was.
We crept into an antechamber lined with red velvet and faced a woman who appeared the archetypical brothel madam. She explained that we must purchase at least two drinks then led us to a table in a room that was pitch black but for the light reflected off a silvery curtain at the back of a stage. After whispering something in Albin’s ear, she departed. He quickly related that if we found ourselves particularly enamored with one of the girls, we need only give the madam some money to earn the right to take the girl in the back and shag her. Now that’s hospitality.
Our drinks arrived as a Spanish girl wearing blue eye shadow and thick mascara climbed on stage and began writhing to deafening techno music while losing possession of her clothing. She eventually stopped writhing, gathered her clothing, shed for naught, and schlepped off stage.
A loud thumping began and all eyes returned to the stage. We sipped our cocktails and patiently waited but no one appeared. After twenty seconds or so of gazing longingly at the empty stage, I found myself suddenly overcome with the overpowering notion (I blame the absinthe) to leap on stage myself. I dashed to the front of the club and did just that, much to the audience’s approval.
Not being much for dancing as such, I instead seized a chair and held it aloft as I marched about the stage like a majorette leading a marching band. I did this for what seemed ages, until a movement stage left caught my eye. I turned to find the tardy stripper dashing toward me. She slid to a stop, confused by my presence, then smiled and walked toward me like it was all part of the show.
She began to dance circles around me, caressing me rather theatrically. After a warming me up, she removed her top and gave it a toss. She then began slowly unbuttoning my top and it went the way of hers. She kicked off her heels, sending then spinning off into the darkness, pushed me into the chair, then knelt to unlace my boots. The audience roared with laughter as first the boots, then my socks were tossed into their midst. The lovely Latina then stood to jiggle her breasts an inch or so from my face. When she finally got around to removing her g-string, she did it slowly, teasingly, before swinging it like a propeller over her head and letting it fly.
I was pretty sure I knew what was coming next—in my mind’s eye I could see her twirling my pants high above her head and letting them sail into the darkness.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. She danced to the side of the stage and came to a standstill, placing her hands on her hips and staring into my eyes. She turned to the audience, then gestured toward me. They hooted, and hollered, and she came toward me in a stylized crouch, a panther stalking its prey. She took me by my hands and pulled me to my feet. She ran her hands down the length of my body until such time as she was kneeling before me. With professional speed, she had my belt unbuckled, my fly unbuttoned and my pants around my ankles.
She seemed surprised I wasn’t sporting any underwear and turned to the audience feigning Macauly Culkinese shock, her mouth open wide and hands to cheeks. She pushed me back into a sitting position, pulled my pants off, and much as I had prophesied, they vanished into the darkness. I blurrily remembered that, as I’d hopped on the stage, Albin had yelled out: “Boyd! You should get totally naked!” And there I was.
The stripper straddled my legs and sat on my lap, pressing herself tightly against me. It began to appear we were about to kick off the live-sex portion of the show and it was at that moment my mind flashed to my pants, sailing away into the darkness. With my wallet and a rather large sum of money. Panicked, I lifted the stripper off me, determined to rescue my trousers from the grasps of what would surely be a gang of desperate degenerates. Before I could leap off stage, my stage partner seized my forearm with both her hands. Smiling, she leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I don’t care what you might think about her earlier behavior, the girl had class.
Despite my earlier concerns, the audience was very helpful in reuniting me with every errant article of clothing. Someone had even folded my pants and placed them on my table, with nary a peseta missing. As I pulled my boots on, the hostess came over with a round of free drinks. Which is very instructive about the nature of Barcelonans. Nearly anywhere else in the world, that sort of sordid behavior would have gotten me physically ejected, arrested, or worse. In Barcelona it’s rewarded with a complimentary cocktail.
We retired to the Cosmo Bar on the Ramblas, an outdoor joint a stone’s throw from our hotel. Our friends, Doug and Ken Thomas were already on hand, watching the teeming eccentrics, musicians, bizarre street artists, and common folk parading down the boulevard.
As we reviewed the day’s events over a drink, Albin concluded that he was incredibly fond of Spain and the Spanish people. “They know how to live here,” he said.
I agreed that they certainly did. We sat beneath the streetlights until the bar closed down, enjoying life’s passing parade, the warm night air, and cold Spanish sangria.
Whenever anyone asks me what I did in Barcelona, I tell them, “I worked there. As a stripper in an all nude show. They paid me in drinks. And I was happy.”