After a few days in Madrid, recovering what I could, passport and travelers cheques, I finished A Farewell To Arms while waiting for the train.
Lagos was good; small warm beaches, cheap Portuguese beer, and euro-touristy bars with good music where I could shoot pool, speak English, and maybe find work. The owner of “Mulligans” said someone needed a couple of people to dig ditches just north of town. I decided I’d check it out, if necessary.
The room on the hill was clean and comfortable, comfortable, comfortable (“a rose is a rose is a rose”)*. Besides the rotting fish on the front patio, the only unpleasantness was the occasional visitation by the fisherwoman’s husband. He’d grumble and move things around, sit down to eat, then go back to work. As far as I know he never slept and he was pissed that their financial situation made it necessary to take in boarders.
I didn’t hang around their place much. I preferred the beach, a little body surfing, sitting in the sand with a good book. Once, I wandered around the entire diameter of the town trying to picture it when all that existed was the part of it contained within the old walls; very insular and very much counter to modern sprawl. The new architecture outside of the center was some bastardized, watered down, low-budget version of true workmanship.
“You just shouldn’t fuck with perfection,” I said to a couple of tourists, snapping away with their camera, she, in a flowery summer dress and a floppy hat and he, in loose trousers, a sport shirt and loafers.
They looked startled, as if I’d woken them up.
“What d’ya mean then?” the guy replied, with an English accent.
“Within the walls there was a plan. Outside it’s just sprawl… fucking sprawl… should have just left it alone.”
The guy furrowed his brow, “Been to Mulligan’s Pub then?,” changing the subject.
“I know, accentuate the positive… when life hands you lemons…“
“Make lemonade,” the girl finished, sneaking a smile, “have you been to Mulligan’s?”
“… pucker and frown first, it makes your sugar-driven smile so much the sweeter…” I said to the girl.
“But about Mulligan’s,” said the guy, getting impatient.
“… and when you laugh,” I said, looking now at the guy, “try not to feel like a jackass or a mindless hyena.”
“Look mate, I just asked about Mulligan’s.”
“Place is like flypaper.”
“Right then, cheers.”
“See ya ‘round.” I said smiling.
They walked away, looked at each other incredulously, exchanged a few words, looked back at me, and quickened their pace.
I turned away and walked along the main street which lead out of town and into the orange groves. There were workmen there, tapping stones into the dirt, one by one, making a sidewalk in the old manner. The sun was hot on their backs and the care they took in placing each stone seemed to me to be somehow honorable and charming but very tedious and tiring at the same time. They were dressed in heavy canvas work clothes and were sweating heavily. The whole thing led to what would be some big resort. If the charm of the town wasn’t dead already, it would be soon. These guys would never stay there. Lucky if they could afford a drink there.
My nights were, for the most part, one game of pool after another. One particular night I went out with the two Germans who were staying in the room adjacent to mine. We shot a few games then sat down for another smoke and another beer.
Norbert was tall, thin and blonde and spoke very little. He was a student of statistics and had a girl back in Munich whom he missed terribly. He’d promised himself two weeks in Portugal to sort it all out. He didn’t get into the relationship in depth, but I guessed that he was silently deciding whether to make it a lifelong thing.
“She is beautiful you see and I love her but, how do you say in English, I’m not sure of this commitment… is that right?”
I nodded and asked if he had a picture of her.
Kristof, the bigger, darker and more talkative of the two was fixated on grandiose political philosophies. While smoking endless cigarettes and drinking “zha cheap Portuguese bier,” he was almost begging to be heard:
“… in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”*
His English was good but his sermon offered little more than sugary Communist ideals wherein “everyone” would be happy. And of course, like Shakespeare’s Gonzalo, I guessed that it would only work for him if he could somehow be the leader of it all and not just a subject of it.
With another classical Spanish guitar solo coming to its crescendo, I sat listening with the enthusiasm of a week-old corpse. It was just talk and tired nothingness, pure, Chatterleyan nothingness.
“Sounds like a bunch of Marxist crap…” I said.
Kristof sort of smiled and picked up his beer.
“The American system could work,” I said, “work, and not fuck everyone at the bottom.”
Kristof put his beer back down and lit another cigarette.
“The problem is middle management… just like the middle class… they’re terrified of losing their place in line and their fear ends up fucking everyone around them.” They’ve become control freaks who will allow you to be their underling provided you cough up the password everyday. The password is different in every company but they all translate as roughly ‘I’m your man.’ But it changes all the time to keep you on alert. And ‘middle man’ is on constant alert to the changing moods of his superiors, the upper men. This makes middle man an almost sympathetic character. He was once on the lowest rung. Only the sympathy stops when one sees the true degree of his power. The men below him are dying on the vine because he is either too busy to notice the good deeds of these men; too busy vying for a spot with the Upper Men or so totally fixated on maintaining his appearance as a man of means. He’s scrambling for the opportunity to play golf with men who will let you swim in their pool, but watch for the glass cover, because until they feel comfortable with the new man, which they may never, they reserve the right close the lid. They’re like the guy on the freeway who won’t let you pass just to spite you. Sure they’re using new terms to describe employees like “co-worker” or “associate” to establish the idea that the workplace has an even playing field for everyone. But while the terminology has changed, the feudal mindset persists. If we could cut through the crap and base the reward system on effort, diligence and intelligence instead of manipulation, embezzlement, and popularity then we would be going somewhere. But until America finds its way out of this state of mourning no one is gonna move.”
“Mourning who?” asked Norbert.
“JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Vietnam.”
I excused myself and stumbled back up the hill.
The Germans had offered to let me stay at their place in Munich, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it.
and the moss and the rolling stone
green river grass, its all overgrown
and I’m alone
* from the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx