The Desperate Artist and the Noble Bullfighter

The bullfighting encompassed just about all the ingredients a spectator would want to see in one.  Except for the fact that no ears were cut off, which was a bummer.  But my expectations had been so low that it didn’t really matter.  There were still some interesting touches and loads of anecdotes. 

       There were three bullfighters, two of which were making their debut in Las Ventas.  One was from Melilla, a Spanish city-province in northern Africa, and the other from Seseña, just south of Madrid in the province of Toledo.  In a sense, he was the local boy.  Then there was a Mexican who had seen duty here a few months before which was why he was wearing his cap as he entered…which was why he was wearing his cap as he entered. 

       The Mexican took on the first bull, a light but strong animal which responded well to the provocations.  The final showdown was solid and the toreador did a good job of killing it, getting it the first time around.  Much of the crowd drew out its white handkerchiefs and waved them furiously begging the president to award an ear, but there was no go there.  This was Ventas, and they just don’t give ears away.  But the bullfighter did a slow lap around the ring to accept adulation from the crowd.  So far, so good.  The herds of foreigners had had their first taste of the real thing.  

        The next bull was slightly more complicated.  It was bigger and less predictable and it jerked its head up a lot making it a tough bullfight to guide when it came time for the faena at the end.  That was when the bullfighter uses the cape.  The torero from Melilla was a tall and lanky boy and he clearly was not ready for the challenge.  Not for the bullring; not for the large crowd; not for an animal that size and with that temperament. He looked unsure throughout his turn and when the faena came, you could tell he didn’t really know how to handle the situation.  A bullfighter must try to remain has still as possible and let the bull move around him, but this poor lad skipped all around and shifted here and there, left and right.  You could almost see the bull standing up on its hind legs, planting its hooves on its hips and barking, “Hey!  What the hell are you doing?  Are we gonna bullfight or what?  ‘Cause if not, I’m going.”

        The bullfighter from Melilla didn’t seem to get the hint, so the bull just bowled him over and lifted him high up into the air.  The when the man was on the ground, he stepped on his head.  All he would have needed to do was piss on him to complete the degradation.  Somehow the torero had managed to make it though without getting gored.  So he continued, but what little confidence he possessed had been shattered.  He now lost completed command.  By this time, the first wave of Americans were exiting the arena in horror; several young ladies were in tears and one was shaking.  The crowd complained because you aren’t supposed to depart until after the bull is dead.  But they left anyway, and thank God for them, because when it came time for killing the bull, the toreador stuck the sword in the side, punctured its lung and the animal began coughing blood up through its mouth.  That doesn’t happened all the time, but it can.  That really got the foreigners to take flight.  Many were Americans women with looks of shocks on their faces followed young men with apologetic looks on theirs, as if to say, as if to say, as if to…say, that they would have liked to stay but you know…maybe they wanted to get laid that night.

        I didn’t really feel sorry for them.  I felt bad for the bull.   But not for them.  They are free thinking animals.  These are people who cringe if they see an owner slap its dog, or who choke up when a fluffy duckling has a broken leg.  They should know what they are getting themselves into.  What would they expect from an event in which you kill a 500 kilo beast with a sword?

        No better off was the guy from Melilla who was knocked over yet again by the bull and beat around like a doll.  He was going to have his share of welts and bruises the next day.

    The third bullfighter, the one from Seseña, was clearly the best of the three.  He looked good and handled a tough bull well.  The animal actually managed to jump over the wooden fence and into the passage where the rest of the team, known as a cuadrillaa, and other officials and aids were.  It seems inconceivable for a bull that big to do such a thing.  My guinea pigs can’t surmount the lip of a dish, but they can.  The crew back there has seen that happen and knows how to lure the animal back into the ring.  Anyway, the bullfighter did a satisfactory job and the crowd once again petitioned the president for an ear, but the man must have been in a bad, he must have been in a bad mood because he wasn’t going to have anything to do with it.  Good…but not good enough.  That’s what makes Ventas so prestigious. 

      The fourth bull came out and looked ready for a rumble.  The Mexican leapt onto the stage prepared to outdo himself and take home an ear before the night was over.  They went through the earl stages all right, with a few comical moments with the bandilleros, and when the faena began, the crowd was finally settling down to see a good matchup.  That was just when some woman to the right of us, a Spanish woman, started to lay into someone sitting next to her.   She was too far away for us to hear well what her gripe was about, but she was loud enough to make a quarter of the arena look in her direction.  Just as she was calming down and I was turning my head back to the bullfight, Andrés grabbed my leg and cried out, “Jesus!  He just got gored.”  And gored indeed.  The man was on the ground and the bull continued to butt its head at him.  Eventually they were able to pull him away and carry his inert body off the ring and to the infirmary.  You could see the open door on the opposite end of the ring.  A green light emerged and there was a shadow of a doctor waiting motionlessly by a bed.   They crew got him onto the cot, and they were rolling him away as the door closed. 

       Well, a bull which has gored a man is considered a dangerous bull because it has learned to ignore the cape and go after the guy holding it.  Or at least, that is what they say.  What is undeniable is that the animal will no longer respond predictably, so it is up to the next torero to finish him off as quickly as possible.  Our man was the poor boy from Melilla who was nearly shaking as he entered the ring with a “Why me?” expression.  He was nearly caught himself.  Slowly he regained composure and managed to kill the animal. 

      After that, the bullfight lost steam.  The torero from Melilla went on for his second bull, and he did a little better the second time, but it was clear his manager had made a mistake by sticking in the Ventas before he was ready for the big time.  Premature adventures of this kind can cost a bullfighter’s future.  The toreador from Seseña continued to show he had promise, so we agreed we would have to keep an eye on him in the future.  As Andrés put it, he had “oficio”.

      Afterwards we went down to the see what the official report on the bullfighter was.  They usually post it next to the infirmary, but there was none there because the goring had been so bad that they had to operate on him right there and then.  The Mexican, a brave if not slightly reckless torero, had received for gorings, one a six inch puncture in the neck which surely would have killed him had he been at some small bullring in Spain.  We saw the bullfighter taken out by the ambulance about a half-hour later.  We was in terrible shape but he would survive.  The toreador from Melilla had waited around for him and didn’t leave until the Mexican had.  The one from Seseña had taken off almost immediately.

      That was the problem with the bullfighter from Melilla, I thought to myself.  He’s too nice a person.  He’s got too much of a heart.  Too sensitive. 

      But all the respect the Melilla bullfighter had lost in the ring, he gained with me as a human outside.  The honor of being a bullfighter on and off the stage.  I no longer wanted to call him a boy.   He had become a man.  If only the rest of the crowd had been there to see it.  Maybe they would have taken their white handkerchiefs out and waved them too.  

The Desperate Artist at the Bullfights 2

The tickets were cheap, much less expensive than what you expect for a bullfight, for a bullfight, for a bullfight.  Only: 5 euros.  For that price I could only get half my body in the Prado museum, two-thirds into a movie theater and a toe or two into a play.

       The Ventas Bullring is in Madrid, just not in the center.  It’s a couple of miles to the east on Alcalá Street right next to the M-30 highway.  It was built in 1929 but the first bullfight didn’t take place for another two years.  The design is what they call neo-mudéjar, or new-moorish style, characterized by its ornate brick layout.  At the top, in tiles, are the year of completion, and the simple words “Plaza de Toros”.   It has a capacity of nearly 25,000 spectators making it the third largest ring in the world.  But more significantly, it is the most important bullring in the world.  Just like New York, if you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere. 

        That was a pretty crappy start.  Oh, well.  This time of year is normally not a good time to go to the bullfights; I am warning you; this time of…year…is not a good time of…year…to go to the fights.  The big tournament, the big season, takes place in May and early June in the San Isidro Fair, where are the best toreros want to prove their worth or worthlessness if the case applies.  Better.  I am at peace.  The summer events are for the small-timers looking at a shot down the road for the big time.  The summer events are for the tourists who don’t want to miss out on that great Spanish tradition.  The place was crawling with visitors from other countries: Japanese and Americans overall.  They came in droves.  They came dressed up in their best; they came with smiles and an air of excitement. Then there were loads of followers of the three toreadors. The three novilleros.  And then people who had no reason or excuse to be there like us.  Just a Sunday night, what-do-you-want-to-do-let’s-go-watch-a-few-bulls-get-stabbed-to-death-like-attitude-if-you know what I mean.  These shows bring the best out of me as a snobbish American in Madrid making fun of ignorant fellow countrymen who were in no way prepared for what they were in for. 

          Andrés was a kind of expert in bullfighting.  He had an encyclopedia at home on the subject which had so many volumes it required its own bookcase.  I liked to go with him just to pick up a few more details on the practice. 

          The went through the ritual: Go to a bar for a beer; buy a sub to take into the bullfight (Spain is still civilized in that sense and allows people to bring in their own food); mull around the souvenir stalls; go inside building and upstairs to a large balcony that looked out over the main entrance; scope out the prettiest girls as they came in; walk through to the ring and find our seats.  They are made of concrete.  The bull suffers, why shouldn’t we?  But Andrés was a veteran, as you know, and had brought his own cushions to boot.  A few minutes later the horns blared announcing the beginning of the bullfight.  Andrés said to me, “Hey!  Two of them are performing here for the first time.  You see how they are coming without wearing their caps?  That means it’s their first time.”  That’s why it was good to go with Andrés.