Touring Madrid 1, Part 2

If there is something to say about these massive gatherings, it’s that they are a great opportunity to walk through the main avenues of Madrid unhindered by traffic.  You can shout here and there in angry protest and then enjoy the sights in between.  Ask an anarchist to take a picture of you and your loved one in front of the Palacio de Comunicaciones.  Dance to the rabid beats of the bongos.  As your nearest riot police for directions to the Plaza Mayor.

     I returned to the center just in time for the 23-F demonstration to kick off.  This day was chosen in part because it was Saturday; and if you don’t know, Saturday afternoons are almost always the times for the biggest protests because that’s the only real chance for most people to take their grievances to the streets.  Sometimes they pick Sunday mornings, but it’s rarer, as people most often want to get some rest or go for an aperitivo.  And on only two occasions that I can think of, they were held during the week. One was for the assassination of Miguel Ángel Blanco, on a Monday in July, and the other was a Friday, March 12, the day after theMadrid train bombings.

            But it is generally believed that if you want a lot of people to attend, Saturday afternoon is your moment.  Anyone in this city knows that.  That’s what expectations were high.  Going to a protest may not be mainstream tourism, but it just might be an alternative way to discover what is going on in this country.  If you have a hotel room at the Palace with a view of the Plaza de Neptuno, you may not have a choice, but otherwise you might spend a weekend in the capital in the bars and forget there is a huge crisis afflicting the country.

            That’s where you have the political left in this country going all out to blame the severe recession on the present government which is currently being ripped for a scandal caused by the former Treasurer.  Embezzlement, laundering, payoffs, and all the good stuff were on the agenda.  And as the country’s economy still wallows in a directionless motion, the thought the leaders were hording all the cash, did not sit well.

       I’m trying to stay out of politics, but I should add thatSpain’s woes cannot be attributed to any one party, and the current allegations are just that, suspicions yet to be confirmed, but suffice it to say it is just the latest in a long line of frustrations which have wearied this country.  They have wearied those who follow the weary.

            In any event, there was this big event calling all of the citizens to become a part of the “rising tide” against the injustices of the current situation.  It was one of those Bastille moments; the WinterPalaceconfrontations, cavalry aside.  On top of that, February 23rd was astutely chosen because it is the anniversary of 1981 Spanish Coup D’état attempt.  Then, and I can get to that one day, members of the Spanish right barged into the parliament and tried to stop democracy in its tracks.  It was a major flop, thank God.  Anyway, everything was very symbolic.  Democracy prevailed, and so the opposition forces 32 years later felt it was the right time to rally the citizens again.

       Well, it kind of worked.  There were thousands of people there.  Ten of thousands.  My final estimate ran as close as 100,000, but that may be generous.  It can be so hard to tell.  That is a sizeable number, but even from close up, even in the very center near the Plaza de Neptuno, one had the feeling we weren’t jammed pack.  Plus, these days, 100,000 is not the number you want to really send a message.   Every two weeks 100,000 fans pay plenty of money to watchBarcelonaplay football.  Failing to match the number for free in the name of social outcry does make the turnout seem a little disappointing.  I can see couple of reasons why, quite possibly the biggest being that it was a general upheaval against the mismanagement of politicians in general, but a unilateral swipe at the ruling party, which is legitimate if that is what you wish.  But don’t expect the other side to join in.

            More concerning was the low number of young people there.  That doesn’t mean they were totally absent.  But I expected to see more.  I mean, according to the statistics, about 50% are unemployed.  They are so often mentioned as a mainstay of disgruntledness. Shouldn’t they have been out in legion making their voices heard?  In theory, yes.

       All in all, 100,000 is almost a paltry number given the current situation.  100,000 is the number of fans who flock toBarcelona’s Nou Camp soccer stadium every Sunday.  And they have to pay a pretty penny to get in.  That makes attracting 100,000 for a free event in the name of social outcry seems less impressive, given the current state of things; given what I thought was the current state.  But maybe I was misgiven.

Touring Madrid 1 Part 1

In a recent piece I did on markets inMadrid, I got a note from a friend reminding not to forget the alternative market at the old Tobacco Company Factory in Embajadores.  The Tabacalera, as they call it in Spanish.  It was a nice sunny day and I decided to hike across theRetiroParkand see it myself.  On the way, I peered through the windows of the library at theReinaSofíaMuseumhoping I might get a chance to see that, but once again got the timing all wrong.  So, I moved on down the Ronda de Toledo, by the Casa Encendida Cultural Center, owned by the ailing Spanish banking conglomerate, Bankia.  There were two immigrants there who had decided to beat the hell out of each other just a few minutes before, or at least I assume so. The brawl seemed to end in a draw.  Each did what they could to tend to their bleeding faces.  A dozen cops were present to secure the zone from all insecurity.  None of this appeared to be my business, but there was an undeniable bit of symbolism apparent with it all.

So anyway, I continued down the road until I got the door of the market.  It was closed.  The door.  As was the market.  They hippies within were occupied with other matters, my guess, quite possibly in preparation for the big protest that afternoon.  Luck was not on my side.

            Just about thirty yards further up the street, there was another entrance to a cultural space which on this occasion was devoted to the works of a man named José Manuel Ballester.  I had never heard of him, but gave it a shot in any event.  It was a good call, for two reasons.  One was the exhibit, which highlighted dozens of panorama photographs of everything from major cities to solar plants.  Shapes and light took center stage in these works.  The artist also exposed another collection of famous religious works in history, a huge version of the Last Supper greets you in the first hall, but with all the people removed so that you focus on the rest of the painting.  A cool and attractive attempt to tempt perspective.  The other reason was the gallery itself.  Just old halls and rooms from the old factory, touched up to a degree, but without fully losing the original feel.  The dustiness is still there.  Both building and opus melded perfectly there.

            Once I emerged from the main entrance, I crossed the street and watched a group of kids, maybe eight years old, play a 5-on-5 soccer match.  It was an official game because they were wearing uniforms.  In that neighborhood, many of the residents are foreigners, like me.  It was interesting to see a typical Saturday morning game inMadridwith no Spaniards in the line-up.  It was interesting.  Good game too.

            I was feeling a little hungry so I walked up to a traditional cervecería and had a bit of tortilla and an alcohol-free beer, which I really can’t stand but I wasn’t in the mood for a real one, and there really isn’t anything else that will go with it.  The bar was calledOSSI, giving rise to the possibility that there was more than one.  Here is nothing to these places, which is why I like them.  The stick to their bread and butter dishes and they do them well. Also gave me a nice paella tapa before sliding the tortilla on the counter.  The tortilla wasn’t so hot, but the ambience was what I was looking for.

            Lavapiés was nearby, and it had been some time since I had stopped by the Antón Martín Market.  I walked by the plaza of Lavapiés, still bummed out to see all those smalltime gambling joints preying on the poor, and wove my way up to a convergence of streets which I cannot recall every seeing before, and if I have, I never given it much thought.  It’s at the corner of    and you should stop by because there are so few of these in this city.  You have to stand at the corner of Calle Escuadra and Calle la Esperanza and look up at Calle Torrecilla del Leal.  Keep expectations low, to avoid disappointment and a desire to insult me, and enjoy the nook.  Then move on.

            Which is what I did.  I went to the corner of Torrecilla and the Calle de los Tres Peces (The Three Fish) whose name I should know the origin of but can’t recall, and stopped in a small bookstore/café for a coffee and a seat in one of those comfortable living room chairs they have.  I think it was called La Infinita, or something to that effect. Just to think of all those people wasting their time at Starbuck’s when they could be doing the locals a favor.

            I didn’t stay there long, just a quick but decent coffee, because I wanted to catch the market before the stalls starting drawing down their metallic blinds. The Antón Martín is right next to the Art Nouveau style Filmoteca, old movie house.  I was happy to say that there was plenty activity going on there, commercially speaking.  It’s still a great mix of old market and gourmet gastronomy.  The food stands were getting close to calling it a day.  The tiny bars, some specializing in Japanese cuisine, were just getting going.  I wanted to stay but there was no one to stay with this time.

            On the way out, I saw the old knife store.  It’s been there for far more years than I have.  It was closed, but I knew it was a place I would have to come back a visit.  I’ll let you know.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles 6

I didn’t believe it when they told me, but it finally turned out to be true.  The tracks between Spain and France were a different size. Francewent by the international standard gauge, with a width 4ft 8 ½ inches across; but on this side of the Pyrenees, the authorities preferred the wider Iberian gauge, which comes to 5ft 5 2/3 inches.  It’s the second broadest track in the world, just a fraction narrower than the Indian gauge.  This is no doubt a tidbit of trivia most citizens of this world do not know, and may not see the need to, but there you have it, a fact all the same.  This discrepancy in iron girth, struck me as yet another example ofEurope’s inability to set up its infrastructure in a cohesive manner, in addition to its myriad currencies, languages World Wars and such; and I may just be on the mark.  Common Lore claims it was a deliberate attempt by the Spanish to keep other Europeans nations, in particular the French, from invading the country via the railway routes.

     There may be a shred of truth there since France had on more than one occasion proven itself inclined to incur and plunder this land, with extreme prejudice, I might add.  What better way to hinder future aspirations of this kind than to make an entire army hop off the train at the frontier and hoof it from there.  No one likes to hike thePyreneesbefore battle, I can assure you.  It makes for uncomfortable warfare.

      Of course, on the other hand, no one has considered the thought that maybe it was the rest of the countries which narrowed their tracks to keep the Spanish out.  Unlikely as it may seem, it is fair to mention all the same.

      Despite the general belief, no specific mention of any military aims was made when the Iberian gauge was established as this country’s official size back in 1950s. Spainjust likes to be different it would seem.

      Decades later it meant that if you wanted to invade the rest of the continent as a tourist, first you had to alight at a town called Portbou, cross the border and hoist yourself back on another at Cerbere to carry onto Avignon.  Or something like that.  It may be that in Portbou itself there was a continental track parallel to the one we had used.  In any event, the peculiarity came across as quirky at first, but the novelty soon wore off.  On top of that, my friend John, who had bought some kind of fancy six-month all included pass, had to pay the sucker’s surcharge.  But that was in France, and that was the French.Le supplemént du Sucker, I think they denoted it.  The return was similar, just the other way around in almost every sense.  We got back on the Spanish train and bolted back toMadrid, passing byBarcelona.  The German was no where in sight.  That meant he had either recovered or been admitted to a hospital.  Having no money on us and no new travel companion to get drunk with, we were forced to deal with the backboard without the assistance of booze.  Soon the bench’s virtues as an instrument of torture became more apparent by the hour, and the passengers who shared our cabin had the annoying habit of living in places whose stations we reached at the most unsettling hours.  Sleep was seldom.  Slumber even rarer.

     We finally made it to Madrid just past dawn.  It was Easter Sunday.  We had returned with an American friend who was living in Avignon and yearned to spend a week or two in Spain to catch some halfway decent weather.  When we sat down to lunch, we paused in mid-meal to stare out the window with astonishment as the first snowflakes of the winter tumbled to earth.  Although it was early April, it was the first time that year.  Expect the unexpected from Madrid.  Always.

25 years: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 5

Once inSpain, air travel was of little interest to the mortal like me who, as a student, rarely had a budget to even take a taxi, let alone hop on a Boeing jet toBarcelona. And since I didn’t have access to a car, or to anyone who did, bus and train travel took priority.

      This meant a departure from what was seen as common wisdom among Americans for whom the thought of taking a train was often considered a crappy, and even creepy, way of moving long distances.  It was surpassed only by bus travel, mule riding and, perhaps, late-night hitchhiking near border towns, as the least sensible form of getting around.  Going by bus, in particular, spoke of dire situations.  It symbolized the last hope for American civilization.  In fact, it was what you took when you had no hope left at all.  The next step was crawling.

      But Europe was a different game altogether.  Public transport had long been praised for its efficiency and high quality.  This was especially true of the railroad.  It is said that, like any good dictator, Franco made a point of it that the trains ran on time, and my goodness, it would seem that his policy still held true well beyond the time of his timely death.  But there was more to this means of travel than just keeping to the timetable.  Train travel was something intrinsicallyOld World, something that rang of tradition, mystery, World Wars, revolutions, romance.  All wrapped up on a wagon and rail.

     America had taken but a couple of decades to push aside the usefulness of its long-distance railroad system.  Oh, everyone knows it still worked, and made crossing theRockiesa treat.  But if you were going from, say New York to Philadelphia, there wasn’t much sentimental value in munching on some Planter’s Peanuts and watching the marshy Meadowlands go by.

      Plus it was every Europe-bound university student’s dream to get hold of a InterRail pass and get lost, robbed and swindled all over the continent, for the sake of saving a few bucks.

       I was among the aspirants, but never lived out my dream.  It is a pending matter in my life.

       In any event, I did get a chance to do a little train travelling.  The first trip I ever took was a short one to nearby Toledo.  My friend John and I left from the Atocha Train Station, the same one that would suffer the horrific bombings by Al Qaeda in 2004.  Back in 1988, the trains still came into the old part of the terminal, though this is now an indoor tropical garden, haven for weary and hungry travelers and unwanted turtles.  We took on the ticket window with reasonable success, made our way to the track, found an empty pair of seats and pulled out on time, if I recall correctly, screeching into our destination about an hour later.  It was an old seemingly dusty depot, reminiscent of some Hemingway novel, I write for want of a less clichéd description.  The return was handled with the same uneventful batch of minutes.  We stumbled back into Madrid happy with what we had seen, content with the journey, but otherwise,

       One of my first true encounter occurred when John and I decided to visit our friend Aleko who was studying French in Avignon, or so he said.  You never knew.  It was our spring break, and through a miscalculation of funds, meaning I had spent to much, I had four days to try and make it on about 5000 pesetas, which was about $50.  We were covered but room, but board was going to be decidedly tougher.

       In any event, I managed to purchase a ticket via my credit card, it was an American Express that my parents had given me in case of emergencies.  American Express was about as useful as Monopoly money in most European establishments, but the railroads accepted them.  They tend to accept anything, even person property and family members.

      This time we were planning on taking a night train, which is really short for “Nightmare” train, but they want to withhold this bit of information for obvious marketing issues.

       At that time, there were two types of coaches: the ones with compartments with benchlike seats and the ones with sleepers, a name which only suggested its purpose without fully complying with its promise.  The former, though, was what we had.  This was all right at first because it reminded us of those old mystery and spy movies.  I might say Harry Potter, but the little wizard hadn’t even been conceived in the mind of the J.K. Rowling yet, so we will have to go back further in time.  With my only real reference being the Metro North commuter train inNew York, these quaint apartments were everything a savage and unrefined American could want.  At least for the first fifteen minutes.  Then you start to ask certain questions.  “John, what do you think of these seats?”

    “They’re stiff.”

    “Stiff?  I’d say they’re orthopedic.”  I felt I had been impaled.

    “How long did you say the trip was?”

     “About twelve hours.”

     “I guess we should start drinking soon, don’t you think?”

     “By all means.”

     We had bought two six-packs in the station before leaving figuring we had to bring something along to keep us entertained.

     Luckily for us, there was only a third visitor in our cabin and he was young.  He was German and was going to stop off in Barcelona for just one day on his way home.  He was not a very sizeable specimen of the Teutonic race and wore round intellectual glasses.  He looked like he enjoyed writing incendiary political pamphlets to be distributed outside factories.  But he liked beer too, which was only natural, and with that hobby in common, we spent a few hours getting to know each other and having a few laughs.  I don’t really remember anything about the man’s life.  In fact, all I can say is that the sliver of his personal timeline that he shared with us was devoted to becoming intoxicated.  So much so, in fact, that he ending up slurring his words so badly I thought he was speaking to us in German.  Then he retired to the toilet for the rest of the evening.

      At dawn, I went to the tiny bathroom to fetch him.  He was lying facedown and his feet were sticking out the door.  I grabbed the right shoe, lifted it and let it drop with a thump.  “Hey Fred,” or whatever his name was. “We’re coming into Barcelona.  You’re going to miss you stop.”

       He was half-covered in vomit, but surprisingly polite about my wake-up call.  He wobbled onto his feet.  I went for his gear, stuffed it in his arms and saw to it he got off in one piece.  I still wonder whatever became of him on that day in Barcelona.  Perhaps, and this would not be a first, he is still there.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles 4

Spantax, by the way, gets its name from Spanish Air Taxis Aero Líneas, which aptly described the company’s earliest services and also explains the unfortunate acronym.  I still think it’s a dreadful choice.  Founder and former Iberia pilot, Rodolfo Bay Wright, may have known a thing or two about flying planes, but he could have done with course on marketing, and I fret to think what would have become of our animals had he been in charge of naming each and every one of them.

        He, along with former stewardess, Marta Estades Sáez, created the company in 1959.

         I may have taken a stab or two, or thirty, at the airline, but it would only be fair to say that before I became acquainted with it in its moribund stage, Spantax came to fly as many as 2,000,000 travelers annually.  Originally served as mainly what its name indicated, a taxi service. Apparently, many of the clients were geologists flying into Africa who were in search of areas to exploit for multinationals.  As the fleet grew and modernized, jets were introduced in the mid-1960s, and with the increased the routes and the passengers.  The 1970s saw the height of the company’s operations as they carried travelers to Europe and North America.  The pride of the flotilla originally was the Convair 990, followed by DC-8s, DC-9s and DC-10s.  I can’t tell you which one I took, all I recall is that comfort was spared at all expense with the intention of using no expense.  I was just glad to make it back to the ground.

       Spantax held its own into the early 80s and even registered solid returns for several years; but rising fuel costs and greater competition dragged it mercilessly down, until it reached a point of no return.  In March of 1988, it ceased activities.

            Spantax did have its share of tragedies, probably at a time when air travel even among big names was slightly less safe, to be fair.  The biggest by far took place in the Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife, where a Convair 990 plunged just after takeoff making in one of the deadliest Spanish airline accidents in history.  Los Rodeos, by the way, is no stranger to aeronautic catastrophes.  It was there that this site that two ill-fated 747s, packed to the hilt, met in a horrific runway collision.  It was infamous Pan Am-KLM collision, the worst single commercial crash of all time.

            Spantax also met some fortune.  On one occasion, an air-traffic controllers’ strike inFranceled to a midair collision between an Iberia and Spantax aircrafts – you can now appreciate Reagan’s decision to fire the ones in the States.  TheIberiaflight partially clipped the Spantax wing, but the latter managed to return to Earth safely while the former resulted in the death of all of its passengers. So, I guess the lucky part depended heavily on which plane you were in.

            Little is left of the defunct airline.   Barely a memory.  Aside from a quick entry in Wikipedia, I only found a simple website devoted to its history.  Ironically, it was set up by a foreigner who lives inSpain, not me, and who has taken a nostalgic fondness for it, definitely not me.

            But I know the feeling.

25 Years in Spain: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 3

Reliving the day is almost as disagreeable as the trip itself.  Even twenty-five years ago just plain awful from nearly the beginning and just got progressively worse.

     Getting over to the airport went smoothly enough, I guess.  Even John looked surprisingly calm.  He just laid his head against the window, breathed into the pane from time to time and drew doughnuts with sprinkles on top.  Whatever it took to take his mind off the stress, that was my strategy.  I was just happy my little pep talk had finally made him relax.   I knew I had a knack for guiding people through trying times.  Things were brightening up.

     That was, of course, until we arrived at John Fitzgerald Kennedy International Airport and saw the line that awaited us.  In reality, it had started miles back at the Whitestone Bridge and had become progressively thicker from there.

     The real problem behind this all was the kind of flight our travel abroad program had assigned us.  As I mentioned before, the company was called Spantax, and though in America the name didn’t amount to much, in Spain the word, when pronounced correctly, eerily resembles the Spanish verb “espantar”, which means “to frighten”.  As a young student of the language I was not privy to this information, which meant I pressed on with my plans oblivious to what I was getting myself into.  It was an regular charter, a kind of oxymoron in air travel jargon, and a bad joke amongst travelers.  But it did prove that the FAA had a sense of humor.

     The check-in line was actually longer than the plane itself; so long, in fact, that I was sure we couldn’t all possibly want to take the same flight.   So I immediately decided to clear up the confusion and politely asked the man in front of us.  He was short and balding in most spots of his head and wore a cardigan jacket beneath a thick overcoat; just the kind of person who would know the information I was looking for.  He looked Spanish, but I spoke to him in English because, hell, we were still in America, and it was my constitutional right to speak my mother tongue.

     “Yes, it’s the flight to Madrid,” he replied with a noticeable accent.

     “All of us?!  What are we taking, a B-52?”

     “Ha!  You’ve never flown with Spantax before, have you?”

     “No, why? Should I have?”

     “Oh, you’ll see.”  And then he turned and faced the river of humanity ahead of us.  I now think it was because he had to laugh and didn’t want me to see.

     “What did he mean by that?” enquired John, with a nudge and a yawn.

     “It means this is gonna be a long flight, I guess.  Either that or were going to die.”

     “Oh, I don’t want to hear that kind of stuff now man?  This whole scene is really starting to bum me out.”  He began stepping away.  “I’m outta here.”

      “Where are you going?  Get back here.  What do you want us to do, lose our place in line?  Charter flights can be messy things, believe you me.  People leave their civility out by the sliding doors.”

     The only saving grace was that John was probably the largest passenger on the flight.  To talk to him, you had to position your neck as if you were looking up at the ceiling.  Chances are others would avoid confrontation with him, unless they were armed.  Still, you had to watch your step.

     “I was just going for a walk man.  Take in the scenes.”

      “What scenes?  This is the International Arrivals Building.   What could possibly interest you here?”

      “Those funky departure flight panels over there.  I think I’ll go check them out.  They blink and stuff.”

      “Hey what’s wrong with you?  I’ve noticed you’ve been acting strange all morning.  You seem so calm.  I feel like I spending a semester abroad with a yogi.”

      “It’s my new attitude man.  Except for the last minute or so, I’ve been flying already.  I guess those pills must have expired.”

       “Pills?  What pills?”  I asked.  He looked at me sheepishly.  “John!  What pills are you talking about?”

      “It’s no big deal, man.  Nothing illegal.  I just popped a few of your allergy pills to help get by on.  They were the only thing I could find in your medicine cabinet.”

     Those were my favorite drugs.  The ones I used to write poetry with, which probably explains why my poems were such crap.

     “Antihistamines?  What are you nuts?  Those are for allergies.”

     “I know man.  That’s what I just said.  I’m allergic to planes man, ha, ha, ha.” he sniggered.

     “That explains everything.  You gotta be careful with those things.  They can knock you out.  You’re not supposed to do things like drive lawnmowers or shoot people with them.  They dull your senses.  How many did you take?”

     “Not too many; I didn’t want to overdose.  Just four.”

      “Four!  You’re not supposed to take more than one at a time.”  There may have been a possibility that we would be splattered to smithereens in the middle of the Atlantic, but one thing was for sure, I could rest assured that John would not be sneezing on the way.

      “Under normal circumstances.  But this isn’t normal.  I had to make sure they were going to have an effect.”

      “Well trust me, they are.  You look like you just woke up from a coma.  Forget the departure board.  Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee somewhere?”  This was before the days of Starbucks, at least on the East Coast.  The best we could do back then was a Choc Full o’Nuts counter.

     “But I thought we shouldn’t leave the line.”

     “That’s all right.  I’ll hold you place for you.  We’re not going anywhere for a long time.”

       “You’d hold your place for me?  My friend, you are a good man.  God will hold you in kind regard for this, mark my words.  And I don’t even believe in him.  I’ll be back with a gift of appreciation for you.”  Then he gave me the Vulcan “V” sign.

     “That’s just great.  You can forget the gift and just worry about getting yourself back in time.  Be careful out there.  There’s a lot of wierdos crawling around theInternationalArrivalsBuilding.  Trust me.  It’s one of the most dangerous places on Earth.”

     “Mark my words.”

      “Fine I will.  See yah.”

       I turned back to see if we had moved at all when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

       “Just had an idea.  You wouldn’t happen to have any Life Savers? You know the ones with five flavors.”

      “No!  So leave me alone.”

       “Chill out man.  I can deal.”

       “Well, I can’t.  At this rate, we’ll be lucky if we ever get toSpain.”

       “All right. I’ll try something else.”

      John returned thirty minutes later apologizing that he would have been back earlier had it not been for the fact he had gotten in the Aer Lingus line by mistake until he realized that they were not speaking Spanish but English with a funny accent.  He had a Dr Pepper and a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips for me.  I passed on the soda because I could never figure out what flavor they were trying to emulate, and that made me nervous, but accepted the chips as a gesture of peace.  I was also hungry, in need of a cigarette and quite possibly a beer.

      We didn’t get our boarding passes until 5:45, fifteen minutes after the plane was supposed to take off.  And there were several dozen flyers behind us.  Needless to say, the aircraft wasn’t going anywhere.  It was a charter flight, for God’s sake, albeit an “official” one, and the problem with charters is that they are often sorely undermanned on the ground.  That means delays, more delays and lots more delays.  If the plane misses its scheduled take-off time, it is usually bumped behind the major airlines until later that evening.

      There was also word of a baggage handlers’ strike, which only made things worse.  Baggage handlers are kind of like the stomachs of the airport organism.  You fail to appreciate their importance until they begin to fail you.  Then you wished you never had an ill thought about one in your life.

      On the other hand, when it is 10:00 p.m. and you are still at the gate, you basically don’t care who is to blame, you just want solutions.  Spantax’s answer up to that point was to keep us in the dark about the truth. They knew the power of withholding information, and they exercised it to expertise levels.  The hostesses at the counter would just smile at the endless enquiries and say, “Wish we could help.  But they haven’t told us anything yet.”  God, they were effective.

       John and I moseyed off to a bar and began digging into our budget in exchange for a few skunky-smelling Becks.  In hindsight, there may have been some clear issues with mixing alcohol with antihistamines, but when you are twenty years old, those thoughts don’t come into play. In fact, if anything, they encourage you to experiment.

     Eventually some garbled instructions emanated from the PA system.  Back then they still alerted of boarding times over the airwaves without fear of a liability suit.  This was encouraging, in a pathetic sense that only desperation can produce, as it soon became apparent that departure was at least in the foreseeable future.  For the airline, I hesitate to call it such as it sounds too professional, it was a way to get us on the aircraft and make us feel as if we were closer to our destination.  That way we would shut up.

     There were so many rows onboard it became immediately evident that the designers did not have 20th Century people in mind when considering space.  I mean, if we had been a travel group of Australopithecus, well perhaps our gripe would have come under certain debate, but Spantax had clearly placed quantity over quality when deciding how many seats to fit in the plane, and thus comfort was spared at all expenses.  To put down the tray in front of me, I had to bend my elbows sideways and breathe in deeply.  John, to my left, could kiss his knees without even moving his head.  There we sat for an hour and a half reliving the horrors of life before the advent of air conditioning.  Just when I thought we were going to run out of oxygen, the aircraft started to move and head bumpily for the runway.  It is my firm conviction that we were the last plane to leave the airport that day.

     The plane started roaring down the runaway in Queens, then got on the Long Island Expressway for the rest of the takeoff.  By Montauk Pointwe were off the ground.  Most passengers sought relief at the bar cart, but naturally, as a charter, there just wasn’t enough alcohol to go around, causing no uncertain uneasiness among the masses, as we were left to practice yoga without any release.  And believe me, a good book wasn’t going to do the job.  John got out of it lucky.  A half an hour into the flight he fell asleep from a combination of excessive anti-hay fever doping and limited oxygen in take.  From time to time, I’d check his pulse just for good measure.  What are friends for?

      However, that essentially left me without anyone to entertain me, and I normally need plenty of it to get me through these ordeals.  Much of the rest of the flight has been essentially suppressed from my memory.   The aircraft sounded like it was connected to a life support system.  The engines ground and moaned like ailing refrigerators.  Inside wasn’t much better.  It was loud, cramped, asphyxiating, claustrophobic and stale.  I just had to sit and stare and let the polluting inactive cabin air form a layer of crap over my skin.  And that was the extent of it.  Except for the landing, of course, when the pilot decided to touch ground when the plane was still about a quarter of a mile above the Earth.  God, I thought the wheels were about to snap.  That finally jolted my friend astir.

     “What, Jesus!” he swore and flung his arms around as best as he could.  “Did we have an accident?  What should we do?  Where’s that instructions card again?  Oh, Christ, why wasn’t I listening to the stewardess when I was supposed to.   My fifth grade teacher warned me it would get me into trouble one day!”  He kept muttered and fumbled through the pocket in the seat back.

      “Would you knock it off.  We haven’t crashed!  We’re here!”

      “Oh, really.  Well that was easy enough.  Flying’s a breeze.  Viva España!”

A few months later while John and I went to visit some college mates of ours who were studying in Avignon, France, and we read in the Herald Tribune that our beloved airline Spantax had folded.  No, really?  Who could have imagined that?

         “John, I think we’re stuck here for a while.”

         That was particularly true in my case.