The View From Down Here

The View From Down Here

guiri (spanish): a foreigner, a tourist, usually a white person

On Thursday nights here, I used to run an English language trivia which suffered middling attendance on account of I was not so good at properly calibrating the difficulty of the questions. The place where I hosted was and is called La Sra Pop. The staff never seemed to mind these trivia nights, so long as they did not have to change the volume of the music, and so long as the anemic crowd of attendees appropriately lavished their weeks’ pay on the bar.

La Sra Pop, which is tucked just around the southwest corner of the sprawling Alameda de Hercules, began its life, I am told, as a meetup for gay women in Seville but now, for better or worse, has expanded its ambit to include anyone with cash in hand. There are (or were) back-to-back Open Mics, on Sundays and again on Mondays, which reliably featured a peculiar cross-section of transplants and locals. A pale young Spanish man some months ago, read aloud a poem about his own murder and violent dismemberment. On a biweekly basis a group of talented young women, between them playing a dozen different instruments, would cover popular reggaeton songs. The last Monday before the Confinement was handed down back in March featured the guitarist of a competent afrofunk outfit playing an acoustic instrumental set for which he received a standing ovation. A visiting Canadian in a floppy Easter hat, that same night, took the stage, sat down at the piano, announced in English “This is a piece from a larger musical I have been working on”, began playing, stopped, said “my boyfriend and I broke up on the walk over here”, got halfway through the song, began weeping, finished the song, bowed and went back to her table where her friends applauded sympathetically. The most reliable staple of these shows, though, was an old man whose name I still do not know, with whom I confess to having an enduring fascination.

The old man in question is somewhere adjacent 70. He has got a blue neck tattoo, a leather jacket and motorcycle cap, and a gold pirate earing in one ear. He plays an ancient battered acoustic and sings in a low rasp I have told people makes me think of Tom Waits. When he plays on stage he does so hunched over his guitar in a noble, vulturish stance. He has one song about “quitting your job, abandoning your girlfriend, and robbing the houses of the rich.”

Insofar as the old man is locally famous, his most locally famous song is entitled “Soy San Tommaso” (which, not-coincidentally, sounds an awful lot like “Soy sadomaso” or “I am a sadomasochist”). It is an original song of wildly variable length. Its verses give account of all manner of debased scenes, lurid perversions, discreditable trysts, as well as an enduring love for the music videos of Madonna. Whenever he sings San Tommaso, La Sra Pop’s one female bartender will accompany him on-stage and punctuate the verses with notes of ecstatic feminine agreement. While he plays the guitar he also imitates a trumpet with his mouth into the microphone.

About two weeks before the Confinement, the old man took the stage and announced that he had just read some graffiti on the stall of the bathroom, that said, “If I hear San Tommaso again I will realize suicide.” He was apoplectic. “If you haven’t the manhood to come on this stage and say it to my face, to come on this stage and perform. Well then you are a coward. I say it, you are a mamon and a coward. I would punch you right in the face.” I am shortening the speech considerably, omitting some of the more colorful maledictions, but doubtless you understand the gist. Half of his time on stage was given over to flaying the anonymous critic. He commenced with a defiantly long version of the song, where one of the verses made mention of him having unnatural knowledge of a tortoise. The risk of catastrophe, of complete world-stopping disaster, seemed so remote then, it is difficult even to remember the feeling with any real acuity.

Every Sunday or Monday, he would arrive via bicycle and lock it up just outside the plate glass window. Inevitably someone, usually a younger tattooed Spanish man, would come over as he was doing so, and accost him, embrace him, call him “uncle.” Occasionally he shows up on the arm of one or another handsome middle-forties Spanish woman. Both kiss him passionately on the mouth when they are together. I have the vague, perhaps faulty, intelligence that each knows about the other and is unconcerned. I have asked the staff behind the bar what the old man is called. Two people I spoke to confessed that they did not know, or had learned and since forgotten. “How long has he come here?” I asked. The manager Julio shrugged, said “Longer than I have.”

At the moment that the Confinement got handed down, I had fully trained for the Rome Marathon. The marathon was cancelled, a fact that is not particularly worth mourning when compared to the entire gross outflow of global human suffering the pandemic has unleashed. In much the same way it is silly to lament the quiet passage or cancellation of various birthdays, weddings, retirement parties, open mic nights. It has been a long and unaccountably strange eight months. I saw my only nephew, my brother’s only son, baptized, over a faulty fiber optic connection stretching across the Atlantic Ocean at one in the morning. Many immigrants (myself, my significant other here, included) are not able to return home for Christmas, either out of fear of spreading the disease, or because the already-overwhelmed immigration office has completely stalled-out on visa paperwork (one of the main news stories recently here in Andalucia was about how immigrants had begun paying intermediaries in order to get preferential treatment and appointments the Foreigners Office here). When I called to say I’d refunded my flight last week, that I would not after all be coming home, my mother began crying.

The Rome Marathon, as I say, was cancelled. La Sra Pop announced, quite sensibly that they would suspend all future events until such time as the pandemic was a distant memory. Then in short order the Spanish national government commenced with the most intense lockdown in Europe, perhaps in the whole democratic world. For 48 days people were forbidden from going outside even to exercise. People called the Guardia Civil on their neighbors for sunbathing on their rooftops or terraces. In Madrid there was the story of emergency workers converting an ice rink into a mass morgue. In Granada, a troubled young narcotics dealer was found walking his dead mother around and around the city in order to escape the police who were waiting for him at his apartment (the Coroner eventually found that the mother had died of natural causes, but it didn’t make the spectacle any less grisly or alluring to the Spanish media). Pictures circulated of a man in Madrid walking a stuffed dog around his block in La Latina in order to get fresh air. Spanish citizens went out on their balconies every night to applaud sanitation workers. About once a week a smaller contingent would hold a caserolazo—a pots and pans protest—in order, one friend informed me, to pressure the Spanish King “to give away all his money and abdicate the throne.” Police in Barcelona apprehended and charged someone in a Tyrannosaurus Rex costume, running around the streets while they blasted warnings to stay indoors or face legal consequence from loudspeakers. But it should be mentioned that Spanish citizens, on measure, felt the government had taken the right steps, however grim or crazymaking, the transmission rates for Covid plummeted during the lockdown, the disease looked almost to be on the ropes.

The government lifted the Confinement and most major restrictions just in time to accommodate Summer tourism from France, Belgium, the UK. If it was a Panglossian or foolhardy move, it should be remarked it was done out of necessity. One in eight Spaniards has a job in hospitality and, teetering on the edge of recession, the European Central Bank and Germany refused to float a Eurobond, as Spain’s leadership had been begging them to do. The tourist influx was paltry compared to previous years, but the disease thrilled to the government’s newfound lassitude. Here in Andalucia we all emerged blinking in the summer sunlight after 48 days relieved, joyous maybe, but mostly nonplussed, like Billy Pilgrim listening to the birds at the end of Slaughterhouse Five. The week the confinement ended I received a call from my older sister, a doctor.

“I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

“When are you coming home? Christmas you think?”

“Yeah. Christmas, I think.”

“You can’t stay over there forever, you know.”

“Yeah.” I said, then made one of those noises you make to signal you do not want to keep talking about something.

On my first jog outside after a month and half pacing a 900 square foot apartment, just 48 days removed from being able to run 20 miles in a day, I nearly collapsed before I could finish a 5K. Any sort of muscle I’d got while training was gone, atrophied away during the confinement. My work contract ended, my lease ended, but I could not go back to the U.S. for fear of not being allowed back into Europe to start my job in the Fall.

I spent a month living on savings with nine other people in an empty pueblo by the beach. Then spent some time living out of a car. Then camping (which sounds better than living out of a car) found an apartment for rent for 180 dollars a month in Oviedo, sheepishly wrote relatives begging them to float me cash until I began working again in September, lived fat off of a 1200-dollar emergency check issued by the U.S. government. Got news in July from my (usually Pollyannaish) Literary Agency that every publisher that they had queried about my first novel had sent back a polite “no.” “So while we are open to any ideas you might have, we don’t really see a way forward.”

I threw myself into a second novel. Finished and sent it around. Then headed out on the Camino Primitivo and spent a half-month walking with a tent strapped to my back, sleeping in the mountain towns and overgrown churchyards stretched between Oviedo and Santiago de Compostela. I would spend days in the woods without interacting with a single person, living mostly on bottled Salmorejo and stale bread. While I was on the trail the Spanish government began to mull over and draft new restrictions, a curfew which is now in place, a limit on public and private gatherings. La Sra Pop briefly began hosting Open Mics again, then once again shut their social calendar, until such time as they could feel they were being responsible, hosting events.

Now I am landed back in Seville, working two jobs to cover the back-end expenses I accrued all through the summer. I’ve been working since October, teaching English to kids in a poorer neighborhood just outside the old medieval walls. I will, barring some miracle, be here for Christmas as well. I miss my family quite a lot, but there is nothing very original in this, and miracles only happen in movies. The news says that the vaccine is on the way—and indeed my sister the doctor has already received hers. So then, maybe some time soon the whole wide world will emerge nonplussed from our variform confinements blinking just like Billy Pilgrim at the birds.

This week will mark La Sra Pop’s five-year anniversary, and, in light of the Covid numbers going back down again for the second time this year, of hope ostensibly cresting this seemingly interminable year’s horizon, they have received permissions to put on another Open Mic, this Sunday, with Aforo Limitado. I am hoping to attend. I do not know if that old man will come back, with his cracked guitar and roosterish comportment, bawdy lyrics. I saw him on the street the other day at the Mercadillo de Feria, an open-air market for trinkets and second-hand bric-a-brac. It is one of the oldest ones in Europe—it’s been continuously operating here in the Macarena since the thirteenth century, I recently learned. Somehow, against the year, it’s survived all the unremitting cycles of closure and reopening. The old man did not seem any older when I saw him, wandering up and down picking up rusticate silverware and chipped creche-figurines, inspecting all the wares sardonically, docent of the whole wide world. I hope he will perform again. I suspect that he will. I will listen very closely to hear if anyone says his name.


About the Author

Jesse Salvo’s short fiction has been featured in BULL and Cowboy Jamboree. He spent three years as an at-large contributor for and The Portalist. His first novel Born Secrets is represented by Nordlyset Agency. He lives and works in Seville, Spain.